It’s a new day for the New York Police Department, with technology increasingly informing the way cops do their jobs. With innovation comes new possibilities but also new concerns.
For one, the NYPD is testing a new type of security apparatus that uses terahertz radiation to detect guns under clothing from a distance. As Police Commissioner Ray Kelly explained to the Daily News back in January, If something is obstructing the flow of that radiation — a weapon, for example — the device will highlight that object.
Ignore, for a moment, the glaring constitutional concerns, which make the stop-and-frisk debate pale in comparison: virtual strip-searching, evasion of probable cause, potential racial profiling. Organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union are all over those, even though their opposition probably won’t make a difference. We’re scared of both terrorism and crime, even as the risks decrease; and when we’re scared, we’re willing to give up all sorts of freedoms to assuage our fears. Often, the courts go along.
A more pressing question is the effectiveness of technologies that are supposed to make us safer. These include the NYPD’s Domain Awareness System, developed by Microsoft, which aims to integrate massive quantities of data to alert cops when a crime may be taking place. Other innovations are surely in the pipeline, all promising to make the city safer. But are we being sold a bill of goods?
For example, press reports make the gun-detection machine look good. We see images from the camera that pretty clearly show a gun outlined under someone’s clothing. From that, we can imagine how this technology can spot gun-toting criminals as they enter government buildings or terrorize neighborhoods. Given the right inputs, we naturally construct these stories in our heads. The technology seems like a good idea, we conclude.
The reality is that we reach these conclusions much in the same way we decide that, say, drinking Mountain Dew makes you look cool. These are, after all, the products of for-profit companies, pushed by vendors looking to make sales. As such, they’re marketed no less aggressively than soda pop and deodorant. Those images of criminals with concealed weapons were carefully created both to demonstrate maximum effectiveness and push our fear buttons. These companies deliberately craft stories of their effectiveness, both through advertising and placement on television and movies, where police are often showed using high-powered tools to catch high-value targets with minimum complication.
The truth is that many of these technologies are nowhere near as reliable as claimed. They end up costing us gazillions of dollars and open the door for significant abuse. Of course, the vendors hope that by the time we realize this, they’re too embedded in our security culture to be removed.
The current poster child for this sort of morass is the airport full-body scanner. Rushed into airports after the underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab nearly blew up a Northwest Airlines flight in 2009, they made us feel better, even though they don’t work very well and, ironically, wouldn’t have caught Abdulmutallab with his underwear bomb. Both the Transportation Security Administration and vendors repeatedly lied about their effectiveness, whether they stored images, and how safe they were. In January, finally, backscatter X-ray scanners were removed from airports because the company who made them couldn’t sufficiently blur the images so they didn’t show travelers naked. Now, only millimeter-wave full-body scanners remain.
Another example is closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras. These have been marketed as a technological solution to both crime and understaffed police and security organizations. London, for example, is rife with them, and New York has plenty of its own. To many, it seems apparent that they make us safer, despite cries of Big Brother. The problem is that in study after study, researchers have concluded that they don’t.
Counterterrorist data mining and fusion centers: nowhere near as useful as those selling the technologies claimed. It’s the same with DNA testing and fingerprint technologies: both are far less accurate than most people believe. Even torture has been oversold as a security system — this time by a government instead of a company — despite decades of evidence that it doesn’t work and makes us all less safe.
It’s not that these technologies are totally useless. It’s that they’re expensive, and none of them is a panacea. Maybe there’s a use for a terahertz radar, and maybe the benefits of the technology are worth the costs. But we should not forget that there’s a profit motive at work, too.
An edited version of this essay, without links, appeared in the New York Daily News.
EDITED TO ADD (2/13): IBM’s version massive data policing system is being tested in Rio de Jeneiro.