Data-Driven Policing Still Problematic; Now Being Used By Government Agencies For Revenue Generation

from the defined-by-the-data-you-generate,-rather-than-the-person-you-are dept

Data, even lots of it, can be useful. But it also leads to erroneous conclusions and questionable correlations. Ever been baffled by the content of a “targeted” ad? Just imagine the fun you’ll have when “lol ‘targeted’ ad” is replaced with nearly-incessant “interactions” with law enforcement.

The American Civil Liberties Union, citing reports that the Chicago Police Department used a computer analysis to create a “heat list” that unfairly associated innocent people with criminal behavior, has warned about the dangers of the police using big data. Even companies that make money doing this sort of work warn that it comes with civil rights risks.

“We’re heading to a world where every trash can has an identifier. Even I get shocked at the comprehensiveness of what data providers sell,” said Courtney Bowman, who leads the privacy and civil liberties practice at Palantir Technologies, a company in Palo Alto, Calif., that sells data analysis tools. He has lectured on the hazards of predictive policing and the need to prove in court that predictive models follow understandable logic and do not reinforce stereotypes.

When even the companies gathering the data are concerned about the implications, there’s a problem. (One issue being: why don’t they stop?) Anything that can be obtained (preferably in bulk) without a warrant will be. And it gets funneled into predictive policing software that attempts to mold disparate info into a usable whole. Lost in the shuffle are the individuals now represented by data points and algorithms. A data point located in the “wrong” neighborhood could result in surveillance backed by nothing resembling reasonable, articulable suspicion.

It’s not all bad, though. There are uses for aggregate data that don’t create privacy concerns or fears of ever more biased policing. As the New York Times article points out, the collected data frees up resources to deal with more serious crime by contributing to traffic management and reducing the amount of data entry needed to complete routine paperwork.

On the other hand, the desire to obtain any data available without a warrant is resulting in some very twisted uses of third-party records. In places like Chicago, the data-driven “wrong side of the tracks” can result in many innocent people being treated as inherently suspect. In Seattle, government agencies are hoovering up third-party records to maximize rent-seeking.

The county’s animal services recently sent out loads of threatening letters to pet-owning residents, warning them that failing to get their pets properly licensed could lead to $250 fines. The county was going extract money from them either way.

But how did the county know who owned pets if they weren’t licensed? It turns out they got their mitts on direct mail lists from stores that tracked customer purchasing habits through membership cards and the like. For the stores and the private retail environment, they’re tools to more directly market consumers with goods they may want or need. In the hands of government, it becomes a lot more sinister. A woman who no longer owned a pet received one of these threatening letters and wondered what was going on.

The plan: compare these third-party mailing lists to pet registrations and send threatening letters to anyone on List A but not on List B. Sure, the county claims it won’t be doing any follow-up enforcement — like in-person visits from animal control officers with their hands out — but the damage has already been done. People who no longer have pets are being hit with letters and plenty of unregistered pet owners will never even know the county is digging through third-party data in hopes of sniffing them out.

Once such government behavior becomes viewed as acceptable — or not troublesome enough to result in losable lawsuits or massive public backlash — it becomes the new normal. Today, the government comes for your unregistered pets. Tomorrow, it could be your children.

How about a threatening letter from Child Protective Services noting that your grocery purchases suggest you are not feeding your kids with foods the government deems the most healthy, and if you don’t change your behavior, you may have a little visit? It’s not an absurd idea, given we’re seeing food nannies in the school system meddling with lunches parents are providing to their kids.

The solution would appear to be to prevent retailers from gathering so much data about their customers. But it isn’t. Retailers can send as much garbage mail as they like in hopes of more sales, but all they can do is hint and beg. The government, on the other hand, has plenty of enforcement options to make unsolicited direct mail campaigns much more effective in separating people from their money. Or their pets. Or their kids. Or whatever.

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Comments on “Data-Driven Policing Still Problematic; Now Being Used By Government Agencies For Revenue Generation”

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Anonymous Coward says:

To call the pet ownership example shocking or scary would be an understatement. Such examples are probably a big wake-up call to those who think things like loyalty cards are harmless ways to save money. Not to mention the resulting distruct people would have in giving any company any information at all.

Not to mention the ‘threatening without proof’ example is almost the same thing as the copyright shakedown companies like Rightshaven. Facts, truth, proof and innocence be damned – none of those are relevant when money can be collected.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I got one of those “helpful” letters a few years ago, I did not / do not have any pets so I tossed it in the trash. I’m glad they did not fine me .. for, not sure what that might be. Must have been a gift I purchased for someone else’s pet. Do I now need to purchase a pet license prior to any dealings / interactions with the pets of friends and or acquaintances? This is super retarded.

LAquaker says:

Re: no surprise yet

My homeless girlfriend was ticketed for letting her dog run off her leach in a park, and gave my address in Los Angeles; she had no driver’s license. Within the month AAA (‘Auto Club’) canceled my car insurance, ‘two drivers in the household’: this was in 1974.
A friend, a UCLA psychiatrist was on call every other weekend for years. When her ‘Boss’ called her in and ask why she was in Santa Barbra on a Sunday, she cut up her ATM card in 1976.
You guys are lucky, here in Southcentral, Animal Control walks yard to yard looking for any State owned un-licenced ‘pets’. Outdoor un-neutered cats are a $300 fine for the person in possession of the animal.
LA county has outlawed ALL un-neutered dogs except those with pedigree papers, Darwin be damned.

Anonymous Coward says:

In the Seattle, WA area recently they used “marketing data” to send out notices to people who were unlicensed.

It’s not that they sent it out to everyone, they actually did a merge and removed existing licensed people and only sent it to people who did not have pet licenses. Unfortunately if you bought a pet product for a friend you are now officially in their cross-hairs. But in doing so they established their own database of individuals who they suspect and harass without cause.

I have two dogs, both are licensed and have been since we adopted them. But the idea of using what you purchased to aggressively peruse individuals is over the line of government duty. The laws provide fines for those who do not license pets, but, it doesn’t mandate that they threaten those who do not have pets.

Our local newspaper reported on this along with all of our local news sources:

Daydream says:

A question about the 'unlicensed pets' example...

Let’s assume that you have kinky interests, and go to get a collar, some food bowls, chew toys, etc, from the pet store.
Or, as suggested above in the article, assume that you’re buying pet products for a friend, maybe because you have a discount.

If the state notices and sends you a threatening letter to pay up for your ‘unlicensed pet’, what are you supposed to do about it? Can you be fined for not licensing your pet if you have no pet at all?

Anonymous Coward says:

Oh you have a pet, we found this picture of you and your dog, so what if its in another state, from 10 years ago, when you lived with your parents. It was on your Facebook page. That’s proof enough. That’ll be $250 + $150 court cost, + $700 cyber investigation fee. Oh and that is only if you agree to settle.

By the way, about that set of baby clothes you bought last year, I can’t help but notice that there doesn’t seem to be a baby here, we’ll be taking you in for questioning.

That One Guy (profile) says:

If only there was some requirement that needed to be met before it would be allowable for police to dig through someone’s personal life that would prevent such wide-scale data collection by the police. You know, something that would require them to present evidence of questionable and/or illegal actions to a judge, who would rule on whether or not the evidence was sufficient grounds to perform more invasive investigations of a person’s life.

We could call it, oh I dunno, does ‘warrant’ sound about right?

Nicola Lane (profile) says:

Already a problem - see the UK

This is already a problem in the UK – or was, maybe it is being sorted out now.

There is a welfare benefit called “Tax Credits” I won’t explain further as it is feindishly complicated and boring. Anyway one of the groups of people it is paid to is single parents on low/no incomes. “Compliance checking” was outsourced to a company called Concentrix. Basically they would write to some of the recipients with a letter that basically said: “We think you are livng with someone, you have a month to prove to us you aren’t or we will stop your tax credits” They didn’t tell them who they were supposed to be living with – you had to call them to find out. Then they didn’t staff their call center so lots of people couldn’t get through, and it appears that a number of the letters didn’t get sent out properly.

Chaos ensues! The reason this is related to this bulk collection of data and computers processing it is this – some of the “people” that others were supposedly living with:

The local shop – with the name R.S. McColl
The housing association that they rented their home from – called Joseph Rowntree Foundation
Former tenants of the home – some of them dead.
Former partners of women fleeing domestic violence.
a “new adult” in the home – this was a child who had just turned 18.

Basically it was the sort of thing that should have been sorted out before threatening letters were sent out, or could have been resolved by a simple 10 minute phone call.

Nicola Lane (profile) says:

Re: Re: Already a problem - see the UK

Tax credits are an insanely complex form of means tested welfare benefit. So if you are claiming based on being single and on a low income you have to let the tax office know if you move in with someone (as you are no longer single)you then might be able to claim as a couple on a low income.

Nicola Lane (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Already a problem - see the UK

Unfortunately i do mean insanely complicated!

It is a low income benefit which is paid out four weekly or in special circumstances weekly, but it is calculated annually. If your income varies too much at the end of the year you can either be hit by an “overpayment” which will reduce your amount next year not just because your income has gone up but also by a further figure to pay back your “overpayment”.

There are also payments that can be made to meet the costs of childcare – but only if the childcare is “Qualifying” and only if the costs are “reasonable”.

Trying to work out how much you are entitled to is almost impossible by hand because of all the different parts of it, taper rates etc – basically you need a computer programme to actually do it.

Then there are the actual rules – all complicated.

If you have a job where your earnings are variable, or even worse you are self-employed then it just gets even more complex.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Already a problem - see the UK

I do not doubt that is is insanely complex in reality, but I consider it to be a pile of BS because it was intentionally made complex to raise the bar for qualifying.

I am not a fan of welfare to begin with, but if it going to be available, it needs to NOT be complex. Complexity only increases the folds in which corrupt can and WILL hide. Those that do need the welfare need to easily get it.

When it comes to politics, the more complex it becomes the higher the bullshit is piled.

Bruce C. says:

Another reason the third-party doctrine has to go. Government shouldn’t be allowed to buy commercial data for dragnets like this. I also question whether the release of the customer data complies with the privacy policies of the companies. They always carve out exceptions for “affiliates” and “when required by law”, but what category does Animal Control fall into?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“when required by law”

is the code word for “we are in bed with the government”

They may not be in bed willingly, but they have just made it clear that they have no intention of resisting the corruption that demands things of them. Well UNTIL it starts hitting their bottom line or there is a perceived threat to their business model.

No matter what any business says or does they have zero fucking reason to put “when required by law” in any legal ease because everyone already know that if the law requires it, then it supersedes the contract or agreement to begin with.

Most others will tell you that it is there for CYA purposes, which is true, but just the short translation for everything I just said but I believe mine places it into better context!

I.T. Guy says:

Waaaaaaaaaaay back in the windows 98/AOL years as a youngster doing what a youngster does with this newly fangled internet thingy… it dawned on me. Somewhere, someone had access to everything I was surfing. This was just before becoming an I.T. Guy. From that point forward I was always weary of giving my info out unless necessary.

I never thought we’d see 1984 in America. Surprise surprise.

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