Rhode Island Cops Now Using Dogs To Detect Hard Drives, Memory Cards And Other Electronics

from the all-in-the-name-of-the-'worst-of-the-worst' dept

There's good intentions behind it, but the implications are worrying. For years now, dogs have been trained to sniff out drugs by law enforcement agencies. (Well, in most cases, trained by third-party specialists before being turned over to law enforcement agencies.) The problem is that these dogs now ride around in cruisers and give the police "probable cause" to perform vehicle searches and, believe it or not, hours of rectal/vaginal searches, simply by "alerting" to an odor.

Dogs aren't infallible, but law enforcement would prefer us to believe they are. They are animals which are rewarded for performing certain actions. Drug-sniffing dogs have been known to react more to handler cues than actual odors. When this happens, police officers are in essence generating their own justification for a full-blown search. As Jacob Sullum at Reason memorably put it: "Drug Warriors Kidnap and Sexually Assault a Woman After Getting Permission From a Dog."

So, if the targeted criminals are indisputably awful people, why does this news seem like another bad idea? (via slashdot)

The recent arrival of golden Labrador Thoreau makes Rhode Island the second state in the nation to have a police dog trained to sniff out hard drives, thumb drives and other technological gadgets that could contain child pornography.

Thoreau received 22 weeks of training in how to detect devices in exchange for food at the Connecticut State Police Training Academy.
The plus side is that, at least to this point, the dogs are only being used to assist with search warrants, rather than riding along with patrolmen and nosing around vehicles of drivers deemed too nervous to be guilty of nothing more than a traffic infraction.

But like drug dogs, the urge to generate positives is indulged.
Houston demonstrated the dog's skills last month. Houston walked the dog through a room in which he had hidden devices. A second pass went more slowly, with Houston coaxing the dog. "Show me. Show me."

Thoreau furiously sniffed shelves, desks, cabinets. The dog located a hard drive inside a Ziploc bag in the upper shelf of a desk. A flash drive and thumb drive were also found, with the dog zeroing in on their location down to the exact drawer. In exchange, Thoreau got food.

"This is how he eats every day," says Houston, who cares for the dog around the clock.
The stakes get higher when the dogs are deployed in the hunt for child pornography/pornographers. Training a dog to alert on devices makes any device it detects instantly suspect. And when it fails to find anything, the presumption will be adjusted to fit the lack of evidence. Rather than this being a sign of innocence, it will be an excuse to tear everything apart or collect additional warrants to search other locations. Because if the police have decided you're a suspect -- especially a possible child molester -- the searching won't stop until something is uncovered. Starting this chain of events by asking an animal inclined to please its handlers just makes the chain of unfortunate events unfold faster.

Beyond the question of whether police dogs should expand their range from drugs to electronics, there's the hysteria being irresponsibly delivered by law enforcement officials (and reprinted willingly and credulously by the local press -- because who would question someone who's arresting child molesters?) I sincerely hope the Rhode Island police are working with a more specific dataset than this:
Most child pornography offenders are white men with an average age of 41, U.S. Sentencing Commission statistics show. The majority graduated from high school and hold jobs.
No shit. Most men have graduated high school and are now employed. Quite frequently they reach the age of 41, often exceeding it by 30+ years before dying. Dumping an assertion like this into the public domain will only increase the number of people who view any man a certain distance away from children as suspicious. This doesn't help the public better discern who might be a concern while simultaneously expanding the pool of possible suspects to include all white males.
"These folks are out there trolling the Internet, trolling the streets, taking photos at the beach," [former DHS agent Eric] Caron says.
Now, the suspect pool expands to include males who go anywhere near the internet, beach or public streets. Anyone with a camera spotted in these areas is doubly suspect. The DHS has always been suspicious of photographers, and this statement turns any male with a camera (or cell phone) into one of two things: a terrorist or a child molester.

Spreading hysteria isn't going to make the job any easier. It's just going to increase the number of dead end "leads" police officers will be forced to run down. Adding dogs to the mix may make search warrants more productive, but it does carry with it the added baggage of pretending animals are impartial witnesses, rather than entities whose motivations roughly align with law enforcement's.


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  1. icon
    Josh in CharlotteNC (profile), 9 Jul 2014 @ 10:49am

    Re: Electronics?

    "Houston demonstrated the dog's skills last month. Houston walked the dog through a room in which he had hidden devices. A second pass went more slowly, with Houston coaxing the dog. "Show me. Show me.""

    I'm convinced that Houston cued the dog to the locations. It may not have been intentional, but if he was leading the dog, and he's the one that hid the devices, that test is complete bunk.

    There's a reason that medical trials are double-blind. The patients don't know whether they're getting the medication or a placebo. The doctors treating the patients don't know either and are well insulated from the researchers who do know. If the doctors knew, they could influence the patients just by their manner.

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