These days, technology is all around us and plays an important part in our lives. Life without smartphones, computers and the internet can be hard to imagine for most of us. Besides these personal items, technology has also found its way into the world of migration control and law enforcement. At airports, for example, we find plenty security camera's, electronic gates and fingerprint scanners, all aimed to prevent bad things from happening. Research shows that technologies like these are popular amongst politicians and policy makers and are seen as a symbol of progress. Technology is assumed to increase effectiveness and efficiency by removing the sluggish human element and would result in a more objective process since it is not the subjective human making the decision but the presumed objective computer. This can help prevent possibly biased decisions or discrimination by law enforcement officers. Yet, the literature on technology and law enforcement can put the enthusiasm for technology in a different perspective.
It is not all sunshine
A first issue is that there are assumptions being made on the effectiveness of data collection and analysis, often without sufficient data to back up these claims. And, as the Steven Seagal movie classic Under Siege 2 has so eloquently taught us, assumptions are the mother of all screw-ups (paraphrased). Little is known about how information systems that are already in place perform. Systematic evaluation seems to be lacking or the systems are so complex that evaluation becomes difficult. In many cases, the assumptions on the effectiveness of technology do not seem to be based on concrete evidence of previously implemented programmes.
Then there is the assumed objectivity of technology. The assumption is that computers cannot be biased or discriminate against certain people. A computer does what it is told to do without putting previous experiences or personal beliefs into the equation. What is missing here is that biases can be programmed into the system. If a system is designed to pay more attention to a certain part of the population - by searching for characteristics such as nationality for example - the system is not any less biased than a person of flesh and blood would be. So to say that a computer cannot discriminate may not be justified.
Technology can also be very dependent on information. Large amounts of information are being gathered in order to produce and apply risk profiles. For example, those who travel regularly by airplane are most likely familiar with the API, PNR and ESTA programs. Obviously, there is the issue of privacy as it is not always clear what information is being collected, for what purpose and who has access to it, especially when databases are linked together. And what to do when incorrect information enters a database? Information input can still depend on a person and people make mistakes. The US “no fly list” has resulted in several cases where people were banned from flying, without giving an explanation. If it takes a nine-year legal battle to change information, the trust in the accuracy of such systems may need some reconsideration.
Throw it all away?
So should we do away with all things technological in law enforcement? I don’t think so. Although the use of technology does have its downsides, it's not all negative. It can supply much needed information for public servants on the street-level and fast, automated systems can have economic benefits. The problem at the moment is the lack of knowledge on the efficiency and effectiveness of information technologies, how objective technologies actually are and the absence of transparency of the systems. Maybe politicians should therefore learn from what the terrorists fighting Steven Seagal learned the hard way: assumptions are the mother of all screw-ups.
This blog post is an adapted version of a blog by the same author on the Leiden Law Blog