Police use of surveillance technology and “predictive” policing

Conventional Weapons, Emerging Technologies, Featured, News

Recent reports by the Canadian media, such as The Globe and Mail, have called attention to police use of “stingray” cellphone surveillance, also referred to as International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) catchers. The technology essentially mimics a cellphone tower and forces cellphones within its range to connect to it. It then collects data from these cellphones, such as outgoing calls, emails, and text messages, and tracks the movements of the cellphone. More sophisticated models can create and send messages from a particular cellphone. Understandably, the police find the technology useful when tracking suspects.

Civil rights and privacy advocates, however, are concerned that stingray technology gathers information from ordinary citizens who happen to be in the area. They insist that such use of technology requires greater oversight by civilian authorities—not only in Canada, but in other countries where it is also being used. What use can the police be permitted to make of such data? This question is especially relevant with the emergence of “predictive” policing in Canada and other countries.

On use of stingray technology

We don’t know much about stingray technology and its use by police in Canada. It appears that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police control the use of the IMSI catchers and lend them to local police forces. It is not clear which police departments use this technology, how frequently they use it, or how available stingray technology is across the country.

A little more is known about the ownership of IMSI catchers by U.S. law enforcement agencies. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has admitted to the use of the IMSI catchers and even drafted a guide on its use by policing agencies. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, 65 agencies in 24 states (and the District of Columbia) are known to have IMSI catchers, but the number is likely much higher, as police services do not readily disclose such information. However, information on the use of IMSI catchers is not available to the public. In contrast, in Germany, the police must make a public report when they use stingray tech.

Increased surveillance

New technologies have given law enforcement agencies access to improved connectivity and more data. This in turn allows for increased surveillance of the general population. Ordinary citizens generally accept the need for police and national security agencies to, for example, monitor information posted on social media for activity that is illegal or poses a threat. In some cases, such as online bullying and harassment, we are often surprised by how little police can currently do to assist victims; many of us would allow the police greater power to stop or prevent such activities.

Still, increased surveillance is worrisome. It infringes on our right to privacy and it might lead to suppression of dissent. These issues were raised in an October 2015 Cardiff University study on the policing of social media for disorder and domestic extremism in the United Kingdom. The study found that information gathered by police shaped their subsequent actions, including “pre-emptive arrests, interception of activities, approaching particular individuals and groups, or change of tactics during events.”

Moreover, as one of the study’s authors, lecturer Lina Dencik, observed, the equating of what we say online with our behaviour and intent is highly problematic. This is particularly true when we are unaware of how the information is being interpreted and by whom. After all, the algorithms are designed and used by individuals who might have personal biases against particular segments of the population or hold political views that would lead them to focus attention on those with different views. In other words, data and algorithms are not neutral.

Predictive policing

Greater civilian oversight and transparency are needed to control the use of surveillance technology—particularly by police, but also by other law enforcement agencies.

Data-gathering by police services is only likely to increase in our tech-savvy world. One consequence is “predictive policing,” which uses data to identify a location where a crime is likely to occur and responds accordingly. While focusing on “hotspots” is not new to Canadian and U.S. police, current technology allows wider information gathering to forecast different types of crime.

Predictive policing is more developed in the United States and is new to Canada. So, we don’t know much about the types of information that are collected and used. But the fear is that this information, like that previously gathered through carding, will encourage the police to profile particular groups. Information-sharing between local police and national intelligence services also raises questions about the preservation of individual rights.

Sharing data between countries

The data gathered by police and security services can travel across national borders. Data gathered by Communications Security Establishment (CSE), Canada’s national cryptologic agency—including phone logs and internet exchanges by Canadians—has been given to the intelligence agencies of our allies, including the United States. According to information obtained by The Globe and Mail, the software that was supposed to delete any identifying information failed, leaving intelligence agencies of other countries in possession of the personal information of Canadian citizens.

The CSE had been transmitting such information since the mid-2000s, despite Canadian privacy laws. In 2014, after realizing that the software was not doing its job, the CSE stopped sharing the information. But we don’t know how that information was used by other countries or if Canadian citizens were or are being tracked by foreign agencies.

Much of this data flow between countries results from attempts to address global security threats, such as organized crime and terrorist organizations. Very real security concerns should not be dismissed. However, we must remain alert to the need for greater transparency and oversight of surveillance technology by law enforcement agencies.

Using technology to predict or preempt certain actions can be useful, but can also be dangerous, particularly when it is not clear how and why the data is being used. We must be vigilant to preserve civil liberties for all our citizens by seeing that they do not become the targets of new technologies.

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