Leiden Law Blog

In Technology We Trust! (But Should We?)

In Technology We Trust! (But Should We?)

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 some of us. Besides these personal items, technology is also finding its way into the world of surveillance and law enforcement. At airports, for example, we find plenty security cameras, electronic gates and fingerprint scanners, all aimed at preventing bad things from happening.

Research shows that technologies like these are popular amongst politicians and policy makers. They are seen as a symbol of progress. Technology is assumed to increase effectiveness and efficiency by removing the sluggish human element. It can also 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, there are downsides to the use of technology for this purpose.

It is not all sunshine

The literature on technology and law enforcement places the enthusiasm for technology in a different perspective. First, 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 missed 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 or to search for characteristics such as nationality or religion, the system is not any less biased than a person 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 and ESTA programs. Collecting information like this does raise some questions. Obviously, there is the issue of privacy. It is not always clear what information is being collected, for what purpose and who has access to it. Especially when databases are coupled, the sharing of information can lead to invasion of privacy, as certain information may become available to parties who were not supposed to have access to it.

The complexity and lack of transparency of the information gathering can lead to another problem. What to do when incorrect information is entered into the system? 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 system may not be all that great.

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 of the effects of using technology, who has access to what data and the absence of transparency of the systems. Maybe the scientific community could help in solving these problems.

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