Silicon Valley has been quietly selling ineffective tech "solutions" to police departments

Tech companies aggressively market to police — but many of their wares are making cops worse at their jobs

Published August 16, 2020 10:00AM (EDT)

Male police officer using his laptop while out on patrol (Getty Images)
Male police officer using his laptop while out on patrol (Getty Images)

As Black Lives Matter protests continue to grip the country, some of the world's largest corporations have made public shows of support for the nascent movement against racist police violence. Nowhere is this more evident than in Silicon Valley, whose companies are renowned for progressive values and workplaces. Yet despite its veneer of progressiveness, many of tech's giants have a long history of collaborating with police departments around the country, selling them so-called tech "solutions" that, studies show, make them less effective in their communities and more prone to violence. That these corporations have an interest in seeing bloated police budgets remain that way is at odds with their progressive image.

Companies like Amazon, Microsoft, Axon and others use aggressive marketing tactics and rely on a lack of police department savvy around technology adoption to push untested tech products. While large police forces like the New York Police Department employ rigorous technology standards and community board advisors, many smaller police departments lack such resources. The end result has been increased market share and lucrative contracts for Big Tech at the expense of public safety, as police officers spend more time online and less time with communities..

"There is a myth that additional technology will make policing more efficient and effective," says Malkia Devich-Cyril, the founding director and senior fellow of Media Justice. "This is wrong. It is just not true."

Tech "solutions" are making cops worse at their jobs

The products being sold by tech companies are not making policing better. Instead, they're giving police ineffectual technology on the assumption that it will reduce police man-hours. However, technology also reduces time spent in communities. Dave Maass, an investigative researcher for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, shared that police departments are doing less community outreach because they are policing from a computer. This results in less legwork, fewer investigations, and increased use of untested algorithms which can result in faulty arrests.

As a 2015 report from the Major Cities Chiefs Association, Major County Sheriffs Association and Federal Bureau of Investigation notes:

The real imperative in creating stability, trust, and peace in our most challenged and troubled communities and neighborhoods is to engage networks of disaffected teens and young adults who are both the victims and perpetrators of a disproportionate amount of violent crime. The reality of policing is that we have not devoted enough time and resources to building relationships with the people with whom we interact the most: disenfranchised, marginalized communities where jobs, hope, and stability are in short supply and violence, guns, drugs, and despair are all too common.

When police sit behind computers they spend less time in neighborhoods. This is aggravated by the fact that these new technology tools do not just reduce proven tactics to increase peace and stability — they subvert them.

Facial recognition technology is a global market worth $3.5 billion in 2019, and it is expected to reach almost $10 billion by 2025. Adoption is largely driven by police and border control agencies. Yet facial recognition technology is often faulty and erroneous, the combination of which often results in the imprisonment of wrongly convicted citizens. Asian and African American people were up to 100 times more likely to be misidentified than white men, depending on the particular algorithm and type of search. And, Native Americans had the highest false-positive rate of all ethnicities. The American Civil Liberties Union and artificial intelligence researchers note that "the threat of computerized misidentification isn't just an academic error, but a potentially ruinous one that could improperly influence police officers prior to an encounter, or even cause them to seek a search warrant, by presenting them with a false criminal history."

Video surveillance tools like Amazon-owned Ring, which are generally sold to consumers but have relationships with law enforcement, also do not live up to their hype. Ring promises to "make neighborhoods safer" by deterring and helping to solve crimes, citing its own research that says an installation of its doorbell cameras reduces burglaries by more than 50 percent. But an NBC News Investigation with 40 law enforcement agencies in eight states who partnered with Ring for at least three months found that there is little concrete evidence to support the claim. And, a review of public crime data and a previously unreported study show that the evidence the doorbells slash crime is far shakier than the company would have cities and consumers believe. In fact, the only study carried out independently of Ring found that neighborhoods without Ring doorbells were actually less likely to suffer break-ins than those with them.

Instead, it could be argued that the Ring does not improve policing but does increase community fear. As Michael Guariglia of EFF notes, "Companies aren't selling safety. They are marketing fear." Localized surveillance video culture in conjunction with monitoring apps, like Amazon's Neighbors app, create a community that is suspect and watchful --- or as journalist Caroline Haskins argues, "Neighbors reinforces the racist biases of its users, and actively puts people of color at risk in communities where the app is being used."

License plate readers are also less adept at finding criminals than otherwise promoted: the ACLU reviewed tens of millions of scans from 293 police departments and five state agencies and found hit rates of between 0.01 and 0.08 percent. Using license plate readers, police collect geolocation information by license plate number. This allows them to grid a neighborhood where they can then collect data. However, the nature of grinding means that often there are more readers in a specific neighborhood, which can lead to lopsided data interpretation. That produces inaccurate distribution maps which can often lead to over-policing simply because of a poorly constructed and misinterpreted feedback loop.

Finally, tech tools like Tasers often provide more harm than comfort to police departments. "Tasers," notes one former police officer I interviewed, "are a good tool when used properly, but lots of police departments bought into it because it reduced hand to hand skill which can be hard to develop. However, Tasers poorly shot make people more angry. When people are angry this escalates the use of force. So, now this tool can be used improperly and as a crutch. That substantially hurts the efforts of police officers."

Axon, the maker of Taser, has claimed that the devices are between 80 and 97 percent effective at subduing a suspect in the field. However, data from some of the largest police departments in the nation reveals "that officers rate their Tasers as effective as little as 55 percent of the time, or just a little better than a coin flip. When Tasers fail to subdue someone, the results can be life-threatening — for police, and especially for the public."

Police departments are unprepared to respond

The erroneous and overblown claims made by tech companies are often advertised to police departments that have no one on staff who can evaluate the new technologies being introduced. In an interview with a police officer from a mid-size police office in the Pacific Northwest who has asked to remain anonymous, he shared stories about how companies like ICop sold unreliable hardware to police departments that were ill-equipped to evaluate their effectiveness. He estimates that over $1M of devices went un-utilized at taxpayer expense. Crucially, he claims that there was no technical expertise to manage or evaluate the software being peddled to them: "Axon experts were our technical experts."

Large agencies had significantly more IT directors or other technical experts compared with small agencies as a whole. And, these large agencies were also more likely to have a departmental task force involved in the decisions to purchase new technology. At smaller agencies, the decision on what to purchase and from whom was largely driven by interest (not education) in the subject or seniority, confirms those interviewed.

Furthermore, a 2016 report prepared for the Department of Justice notes that "at a national level, agencies are not making decisions to acquire technology based on dominant policing philosophies or the activities they prioritize. Instead, agencies appear to adopt technology ad hoc in response to a constellation of factors that includes executive staff decisions, perceived needs, community demands, and available funding." Police departments are ill-equipped to understand what they are buying and its broader implications.

The police department is for sale

Selling technology products to police departments is a lucrative market. Nearly $355 billion dollars will be spent globally on products for domestic security, with law enforcement software alone expected to be an $18.3 billion market by 2023. The largest percentage of both of those markets is based in the US. "In the police-industrial complex, companies best known for their civilian sector products make untold millions—in some cases billions—by catering to—or creating—the needs of law enforcement agencies," notes Jaqui Shine, a writer and historian, who attended the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) conference in 2015. These companies include household names like Microsoft, Motorola, Samsung, 3M, Ernst & Young, AT&T, Cisco, and Target, who sponsor the event in hopes of obtaining lucrative contracts that supply police departments with technology and goods.

The technology companies employ standard marketing tactics like sponsoring trade shows, offering incentives and subsidizing products. Tradeshow events like Counter-Terrorism 2012, Urban Shield, Safariland and the IACP conference helphundreds of vendors market products to police departments around the nation. Dave Maass, of EFF, said that he has seen examples of Big Tech gifting thousands of dollars of free technology tools (such as in the case of Amazon with the Ring), hiring celebrities like Shaquille O'Neal to encourage adoption of these products, and going so far as to rent out spaces like Universal Studios (Axon) while providing free drinks and food to attendees. While this may be standard marketing practice at business to business conferences, police are civil servants. When police department suppliers aggressively market their products through indirect bribery, the health of the American public is at risk.

Technology companies are selling to police departments not to meet a specific need of the police but to increase their addressable market. Encouraging technology adoption on behalf of both police and consumers means more data harvested and sold, more hardware needed, and more opportunity to develop and leverage new products. Companies like Amazon have set up incentive programs where police departments have acted as business development units pushing communities to adopt their technologies with kickbacks based on increases in customer adoption. In some cases, Amazon dictates, ascribes and messages exactly what police departments can and will say about their products. The assumption is adoption leads to better policing and safer communities. The reality is the opposite.

Companies and police departments are working off the faulty premise that the problem with policing is a lack of efficiency. But, the real problem with policing "is a lack of equality," Cyril of Media Justice says. "I don't want policing to be more effective; I want it to be different."

But Big Tech's police gadgetry and software doesn't fundamentally challenge the nature of police work; in fact, it reinforces the status quo.

Reshaping policing doesn't require new technology

A Department of Justice report notes that that "technology has not yet had a game-changing impact on policing in terms of dramatically altering the philosophies and strategies used for preventing or responding to crime and improving public safety." However, the US government, local and regional budgets continue to funnel money into police departments for the procurement of more technology.

While there are many necessary steps to change the relationship between police departments and technology adoption, one big step is to change the way the departments make purchasing decisions. Sales representatives shouldn't dictate what police departments should purchase. Police departments shouldn't be making complicated technology purchasing decisions if they do not have technical expertise and depth of knowledge in the products being procured. Community advisory boards like CCOPS must be employed to determine why technology is being purchased, to what end and for what duration. This will eliminate some of the croneyism that comes from trade show conferences and the limited review of products, where faulty first-party research is used to overblow claims that products can improve policing efforts. Finally, police departments should not ever be allowed to act as business development units on behalf of private companies. Doing so disgraces the role of the public servants and blurs lines between public and private data.

Right now, police departments nationwide have adopted overhyped technology solutions that have routinely failed in their efforts at policing. The fault is not theirs alone. When big technology companies are allowed to market poorly researched faulty products and sell those into our policing system, it puts everyone's lives at risk.

By Kristina Libby

Kristina Libby is a writer, artist and technology executive living in NYC. She has appeared in Popular Mechanics, the Boston Globe, Entrepreneur, Elle and more. You can follow her on Twitter @kristinalibby

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