AI-equipped police: They’re watching, they’re listening

There aren’t many in America who would begrudge police the tools to protect themselves — to avail themselves of whatever technological devices are at their disposal to rid the streets of criminals, keep citizens safe and at the end of the shift, head home healthy and unhurt to their families and loved ones.

Author: Cheryl K. Chumley – Thursday, August 16, 2018

But not at the expense of the Constitution.

Not at the risk of blowing up everything the Founding Fathers forged in terms of the right of the people to be secure in self, homes and possessions; and the right of the people to be safe from unwarranted searches and seizures; and the right of the people for due process before loss of life, liberty and property.

Some artificial intelligence developments are coming up hard against this wall of constitutional protections. Both concern and care are called for here.

For instance: When police departments are starting to obtain technology that allows for listening and watching, absent court-approved wiretaps or warrants, the constitutional paths start to become rocky. Yet, this is occurring. Witness, ShotSpotter.

ShotSpotter is a company that exploits the technological ties of smart cities to help police pin down locations of gunfire. The benefits are obvious; police responding to potentially fatal acts of violence can find victims quickly and administer life-saving aid. But the pitfalls are privacy dings.

“Before ShotSpotter is launched in an area,” Techemergence reported, “acoustic sensors and cameras are placed all over a city.”

When shots ring out, the sensors trigger the cameras to point at the general location of the sound. Between the visuals from the camera and the sound of the shot — the decibel level, the echo, the surrounding noises — a machine learning algorithm then analyzes the data and pinpoints the exact location on a computer screen for users to disseminate.

Sometimes the A.I.-proffered location is correct; sometimes it’s not. Always, though, the data fed police comes courtesy of pre-placed sight and sound collection devices. Big Brother on the watch? George Orwell’s epic “1984” would certainly agree.

ShotSpotter says the technology has already been tested in 90 or so cities, from Brockton, Massachusetts, to Saginaw, Michigan, to East Palo Alto, California. And a clear majority of these cities’ police departments — 71 percent, in a 2011 study conducted by CSG Analysis — give high marks to the technology. Brockton police, in fact, told CSG that officers had actually been able to see a gunshot on the images produced by the software and subsequently respond to the scene in time to save the victim’s life.

That’s pure positive. It’s hard to argue with that.

And yet: Let’s. Let’s think about the threats to the Constitution for a moment. In this country, U.S. citizens are afforded the assumption of innocence until proven guilty. Even suspected criminals caught in the act of criminal activity can’t rightly be called a criminal until they’ve been found guilty by a jury of their peers, or a presiding judge. Until that point, even the red-handed thief is technically, legally, rightfully an alleged thief.

It’s a freedom that benefits all — even while, admittedly, one that makes life more challenging for the law enforcement, the prosecutors, the victims and, as in cases of especially egregious crimes, like child molestations, the law-abiding members of the public who have to contemplate the idea of evil going unpunished. But take away this freedom, and what’s left?

A police state. A country like China where cameras, to the tune of thousands, are watching every move, recording every act, zeroing in on every anomaly, no matter how minuscule.

It may not come right away. But chip, chip, chip — drip, drip-drip — a little here, a little there, all in the name of safety and security, and soon enough, America’s democratic-republic becomes a ghost of what the Constitution once promised.

“The choice for mankind lies between freedom and happiness and for the great bulk of mankind, happiness is better,” Orwell once wrote.

Those are some judicious words.

Nobody but the radical and insane want harm to come to police. But concern for the Constitution and care for America’s long-cherished principles of privacy should be just as important as the safety of police.

Placing cameras and audio devices on community corners, in hopes of catching crimes that may or may not occur, should only be considered with the utmost of caution and with an abundance of care for the Big Brother oversight they bring on citizens who are still, in the eyes of the law, innocent.

The article originally appeared on The Washington Times.