A catchup vlog where I review topics like policing, surveillance, technology, chat a bit about the storm affecting (effecting? lol always hated this) the southeast and give some updates on upcoming content.
Axon the company that was once Taser is just that a company – a corporate entity. Yet, its cloud holds police data which as far as I understand is subject to public interest and access. Whether or not the data is actually ‘public’ is a question that I do not have the time to research.
Fortunately, that’s a variable that isn’t indispensable to the problem domain currently under discussion. The outsourcing of data to a corporate entity by public servants is one that should cause concern. While it maybe an inevitability this practice must be subject to intense scrutiny and the construction of legal structures.
Axon has a very cozy relationship with many departments. Which is not in and of itself necessarily a bad thing. But, it does raise the age-old problem of the merging of state and corporate power. A problem that in its purest manifestation is called fascism.
I do not use this term lightly. Nor do I wield it as some sort of moralist bludgeon. The merging of state and corporate power when fully realized is the definition of fascism.
I am not a purist. I do not think that simply because the police is and may to a greater degree in the future become reliant on Axon’s databases – that this necessarily implies fascism. Databasing and weapons manufacture are not the chief province of policing. It is entirely acceptable for some level of delegation to occur.
So what we have here is a question of degree. How completely is policing going to become reliant on cloud storage, AI, and the companies that provide such solutions? As it stands in this honeymoon period the relationship is symbiotic. Will it remain so?
The history of many a company is marked by monopolistic yearnings. While I have not seen evidence of any egregious steps by Axon in this direction, there are some examples of corporate zeal.
One such example is Axon’s insistence that its systems are adopted by the largest departments. An insistence that they have pursued to the best of their abilities.
VieVue, Axon’s competitor won the bid for New York Police Department in 2016. Axon took some rather aggressive steps to wrest control.
“According to Politico, Taser, in an effort to thwart the agreement, hired a lobbyist to spread anxiety among the black clergy in New York about the effectiveness of VieVue cameras and petitioned the public advocate, in what Mayor Bill de Blasio described as a smear campaign; it also offered to give New York a thousand free Axon cameras. (The department declined.)” – Dana Goodyear – Shock to the System – The New Yorker Magazine (August 27th 2018) – [Page 42]
The reason for these tactics goes beyond fattening Axon’s bottom line. NYPD records “represent a critical node in Axon’s nervous system.” This desire for data is understandable for a company whose business model depends on the acquisition and processing of information.
“With New York, Chicago, L.A., and a majority of the other largest cities in the country using Axon’s cameras and data storage, the company can design the ways that evidence is collected, held, and shared – in systems that the public can’t opt out of.” — Dana Goodyear – Shock to the System – The New Yorker Magazine (August 27th, 2018) – [Page 42]
I boldened the statement – in systems that the public can’t opt out of – because it is indicative of a monopolistic trend. Whether it is a defacto monopoly like Google and Facebook, one that emerged due to overwhelming adoption, or it is the result of a naked pursuit for hegemony – it remains troubling.
Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, and Google are notorious for profiting off of user data in rather unsavory, privacy thwarting, legally questionable ways. Whether or not Axon will follow suit is uncertain.
What is certain is that Axon acquired VieVue this past spring. Something that in my opinion gives it monopoly status. A company whose bread and butter is information that holds enormous influence over the fates of millions of American citizens becoming monopolistic borders on the Orwellian. It is why I chose to call this series Taser, Axon, Skynet in reference to the dystopian world portrayed in the Terminator movies.
Some may be confused by my earlier assertion that there have been no egregious steps by Axon towards hegemony. How can I say that and only a few paragraphs later call the company a monopoly?
The reason is that Axon is a defacto monopoly. In order to build efficient systems, it must make every possible stride to get its hands on the materials that would allow this. In this case, those materials are things like NYPD contracts and the data generated from such contracts. We all want to assure that the best, most efficient, most honest systems are implemented by departments. Thus a monopoly may be an inevitability.
Some have proposed that we regulate Facebook and Google in the same way we regulate public utilities. That discussion is beyond the scope of this article. The regulation of companies as utilities argument is here mentioned because a defacto monopoly like Axon that deals in highly sensitive criminal justice information is a prime candidate for such regulation.
I do not know whether or not I will continue this article but there are many, many more matters of interest, and importance surrounding these advances in policing solutions.
Feel free to share your thoughts below, stay tuned, and as always thanks for reading.
I was born in 1989. A mere 29 years ago and despite my ‘youth’ I still feel odd about cloud storage.
A radical shift happened in the new millennium. All my childhood and adolescent visions of precincts with tidy file cabinets of records attended to by harried cops and clerks no longer hold sway.
The question is…Is it a good thing?
Answering that question is difficult. At least in my estimation. This is because I don’ trust things that seem obvious.
Axon’s new SaaS database/analytics solutions for police records and evidence seems to be a game changer. I’m sure that departments have already been using cloud storage and other digital age solutions for at least a decade.
But this Axon partnership seems to be a step further. A step further in that it appears from my cursory research to be a form of outsourcing.
From a first assessment, this digitization and delegation is a lifesaver both metaphorically and literally. Better records, that are processed faster, and organized more efficiently give departments, citizens, and litigators more time to focus on problems rather than bookkeeping. This means that the overworked cops mentioned above may be a touch less burdened both in terms of paperwork and psychologically.
Real-time data capture and analysis will assure officers that their actions won’t be misconstrued and used against them. Which makes it easier to deploy policing solutions with confidence. Something that we all want since a cop who is less unsure of what to do due to the mercurial nature of social trends and court proceedings won’t get as much decision fatigue. Which means he’ll probably make fewer decisions that will lead to unnecessary injury or death.
Further, this high tech solution will give plaintiffs, defendants, and judges better and faster information. Information that is arguably less likely to be subject to human error. The time required to dig through ‘snail mail’ era police records and ascertain their validity will be lessened freeing up those famous court system bottlenecks.
This all seems rather rosy. Which is why I’m suspicious.
I am not suspicious of Axon, or the police, or technology. I’m suspicious of overconfidence.
There is ample precedent for people misinterpreting statistics and being swayed by the hard-nosed allure of data. ‘The numbers don’t lie.’
The latter statement may be true. But it’s truth is highly conditional. First, you have to have the right numbers, then you have to be able to understand what the numbers mean, and then taking that accurate data with your accurate interpretation and contextualize it.
“Well, it’s right there on camera!”
“The taser counter happened here.”
“This car was at this location at this hour.”
All these things seem very certain. We do have a fairly robust system for weeding out overconfidence. But I fear it isn’t robust enough.
Goodyear’s article in The New Yorker gives one example that bolsters my concern.
Brendon Woods, an accomplished public defender in Alameda County, California gave a statement describing how “increased technology normally disadvantages the defense.” That seemingly infallible ‘scientific verification’ like DNA, fingerprinting, etc. biased courts towards the plaintiff. Despite this, he is uncertain that body cameras will follow this disturbing trend. “They’ve given us a fuller picture of the police interactions at the time. In the past, police have shaded evidence to comport with the narrative they want to portray. They can’t do it when it’s on video.”
As trite as it may be the phrase, “Where there’s a will there’s a way” holds true.
There are already examples that cameras like most other tools are controvertible evidence.
In 2014, Marion County, Florida, officers kicked and punched a man in the head in an effort to subdue him, yelling, “Stop resisting!” After this initial video where the officers performed lines for their Body Cameras that would justify their behavior another video from a fixed point camera on a building nearby surfaced. It showed the man run into a parking lot and lie down on the pavement, waiting to be arrested. The officers get there and begin the aforementioned assault.
My chief concern as I have said is overconfidence. Having supposedly hard evidence like video footage or DNA makes us just a touch too certain. Digitizing police records and the analysis of those records may have many pros. But I think the above episode does an excellent job of shedding light on some of the cons.
Cons that I think we should really thrust into the public conscious. Not so we can do away with these technological advances but so that we do not misuse them. Because it is not the technology that will most often cause the issue but misuse.
“The technology is the easy part. The human use of the technology really is making things very complex.” Says criminologist Michael White.
There is a variety of ways that the use of footage varies by region. Technology researcher for the ACLU, Jay Stanley says effective body camera use depends on such questions as. “When was it activated? Was it turned off? How vigorously are those rules enforced? What happens to the video footage, how long is it retained, is it released to the public? These are the questions that shape the nature of the technology and decide whether it just furthers the police state.”
I will discuss these questions and many others surrounding this issue in the next part of this series. (Like complications of outsourcing. I didn’t forget it I promise.) Thanks for reading.
I chose to cover this story column style in my online magazine because it’s one of those things with lots of intersections. Which is very ‘fractal.’
Mr. Fred Reed is a Vietnam veteran, expatriate who continues a long career of writing books, and columns from Mexico. I stumbled on his material many a year ago and have never regretted it. He is able to provide accurate insights with a caustic wit as spicy as any salsa in his new home.
He spent some time riding with people in what he terms ‘The Street Trades’ (Police, Firemen, Paramedics). Something particularly salient to the current discussion and invaluable in navigating troubled times.
I was surprised to find that officers fire their weapons far less than I thought. Police funding often proves inadequate and departments aren’t left with too much ammunition to shoot down a range. There is also the thing that if one takes the trouble to notice has always made sense.
It’s pretty surprising…I feel a tad odd writing it but..you don’t want cops to be used to combat situations. As a rule, an officer will try to avoid using his firearm. Though some troubled areas of the country may indeed be battlefields, and many officers former soldiers, the police are not soldiers. Live fire, and mortal struggle are things that they avoid. Descalation is the better part of policing.
Readiness can vary wildly from department to department each having unique degrees of perennial public sector problems of recruitment, retention, funding, and corruption.
Fred Reed enlightened me to the fact that policemen often mutter ‘I’m going home tonight.’ Going home is something we don’t think about. It is something we don’t think about because the police think about it.
I’m as far removed from hero worship and starry-eyed delusions about ‘our boys in blue’ as Mr. Reed (a tireless critic of all stripes of OO-RAH culture despite being a former Marine). This is because while the details are fuzzy and likely over-romanticized by my writer’s brain I experienced something in Moscow.
Yes, twenty-nine years ago I was born in Russia. Which is a place like any other with wonders and horrors sprinkled in whimsical arbitrary quantities throughout the land. One of the wonders is the Moscow theater one of the horrors, a commonplace among metropolises ‘fucked up cops.’
So when I wax lyrically about ‘our streets are safe due to their sacrifice’ I’m not doing it from some hickish Carolina naivete.
As a boy of six or so about to descend the stairs to the subway station, I saw two strong young looking officers man handle an old woman. My mother told me to turn away. Pulling me along and muttering something about staying out of trouble with the government.
I’m absolutely certain that this is not the rule for police in Moscow or anywhere. But I do have eyewitness experience of what certainly looked like police brutality and the cultural unwillingness of bystanders to intervene. While details may be fuzzy I vividly recall this episode as being the very first time I was mad at the whole world.
More recently I witnessed the overzealous prosecution of a close friend following a domestic dispute. I am not entirely certain that the officers didn’t fib. The plaintiff lost thanks to a level-headed judge but nonetheless, I have a sufficiently nuanced experience with law enforcement to say…
It is inarguable that policing is necessaryand (along with an educated populace functioning in a relatively health economy) the reason why our streets are for the most part safe, most of the time.
They are safe because the police despite their many shortcomings are an effective deterrent.
The current political climate has thrust cops from one extreme of the spectrum to the other. Rather than erring on the bumpkin’s default idolization of the police they have painted them as overwhelmingly incompetent and evil.
This is a wrongheaded and very dangerous sentiment. All I need to cite for evidence are the murders of five police officers at the Dallas Police Protest in 2016.
Portraying the police as malicious, pig-headed racists can lead to no other outcome.
Which is why it is important to present the reality.
The reality being that the police are human, they vary wildly, in creed, color, and favorite pizza topping.Yes, we should expect them to set a high ethical bar. But we can’t expect them to be superhuman.
Fred Reed asks a very good question in his column ‘Test yourself in a dark alley.’
Imagine chasing a suspect down a dark alley and he pulls something out of his pocket, or whirls about, or lunges at you. It’s dark, many departments are understaffed, you’re likely overworked and tired…this guy might be somebody over reacting to a breakup or it might be a guy with a knife, gun, hell a machete isn’t unheard of. What do you do as the adrenaline builds?
Obviously, this problem is a sad reality of life. Excessive force and deadly violence are not you see just a police problem these are human problems.
Solving these problems will prove to be as complex as the story I found in the August 27th, 2018 issue of The New Yorker.
The story (Shock to the System) is by that publications former editorial staff member and active staff writer Dana Goodyear who covered the transition of LTL manufacturer Taser into Axon. Axon is Taser 2.0 with a stated mission of becoming the ‘public safety nervous system’ via cameras, databases, and AI-powered analysis.
The tale is long multifaceted and has more rabbit trails than all of Appalachia. Which is why in order to do it justice I must turn this piece into a series and promise to publish the rest within the coming week. I have a safety audit at my day job tomorrow and need to brush up all the little acronyms and mnemonics that spell job security for that marginalia known as management. Apparently memorizing lists satisfies inspectors more than a robust series of exercises. But I digress…
I review and discuss an article in Vanity Fair about internet luminary Tim Berners-Lee. Who according to livescience.com is responsible for HTML and as far as I understand, the general outline and process of WWW as we know it.
He has always favored decentralization and fears that human rights are threatened by unethical implementations of the technology he helped foster. I discuss some of these issues and his proposed solutions.