Why Technology Can Never Be Neutral

Burnsville Police Department Sgt. Chris Wicklund wears a camera beneath his microphone.

Burnsville Police Department Sgt. Chris Wicklund wears a camera beneath his microphone. Jim Mone/AP File Photo

Tools like body cameras for police officers can be only as effective at reducing inequalities in law enforcement as the humans using them.

In the aftermath of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, the debate about police violence and safety has gained new national attention. Some politicians, including President Obama, have proposed a technological solution: body cameras for police officers .

The White House hopes to allocate $75 million to local law enforcement agencies , which would equip about 50,000 more police officers with the cams.Most federal aid programs have distributed heavy weapons, armored cars, and cutting-edge riot gear to small-town sheriff’s departments. This program would provide a tool for transparency.

Some of the implications of police reliance on body cameras are already well-known —from their effectiveness as evidence to challenges for their adoption. But other effects are less commonly discussed. For example, the adoption of body cameras would mean a big payday for the companies who make them . The current market leader is the private Seattle firm Vievu , whose "Straight Shooter" package contains a camera, VeriPatrol software, and three-year warranty at $25 per month. But Taser International is hot on Vievu's heels. Taser’s stock price has hovered around $5 for most of the last five years; on the Friday after Obama’s call for body cameras, it closed at $24.16 and has continued to climb . Federal and local governments are looking to spend $150 million all up. Taser’s total sales for body cameras and subscriptions to Evidence.com , its cloud storage service, were only $15.3 million last quarter.

Taser looks to parlay existing relationships with law enforcement agencies into a bigger share of the body-cam market. The company has built these ties by providing all kinds of “solutions” to lethal policing—they make stun guns, and, like Band-Aid, their brand name has become synonymous with the product. The fact that police have recently killed young black men with stun guns, and that the UN Commissions on Torture has found that they can be as lethal as firearms in the context of policing (especially when they are so frequently misused), has not negatively affected Taser’s finances.

Taser’s business model for body cameras goes beyond hardware. The company wants to keep police departments on the hook with subscriptions for a cloud-based storage service. Evidence.com is pitched as a companion to the use of body and surveillance cameras, a way for departments to cope with the massive amounts of data they generate. Taser offers to solve the headache of storing and managing all the video content their cameras hoover up. For taking this burden away from overtaxed police departments they charge a monthly fee of $39 per user for a “Pro” package. A monthly fee of $55 qualifies for a service that includes free camera upgrades. Of course, Taser won’t pocket proceeds from all the sales that arise from the forthcoming body-cam spending spree, nor will it enjoy universal buy-in on its cloud service. But the possibility of even a sizable fraction of 50,000 new body-camera users paying $40 a month must make for some nice daydreams in the board room.

The Evidence.com front page features a video plugging the service. Mostly it amounts to an endorsement from Salt Lake City Police Department Chief Chris Burbank, intercut with footage of the product in action. He extols the virtues of the platform, expressing particular gratitude about handing over responsibility for storing all manner of evidence to a private company.

The success of body cameras requires several assumptions. Advocates take it for granted that body cameras will positively affect police and citizen behavior, making the use of force less likely. They often cite a small number of real world trials involving police forces in California, Arizona, and Scotland. Proponents treat these examples as natural experiments proving that body cameras have a “civilizing effect.” In particular, the Rialto experiment has been deployed in recent debates as proof that cameras reduce the use of force (which dropped 60 percent there) and complaints against police (which were reduced by 88 percent).

But in a report this year for the U.S. Department of Justice, the criminologist Michael D. White cast serious doubt on what these examples prove. The only certainty across the studies were fewer citizen complaints about police misbehavior. Even if police find this outcome compelling, we don’t really know the cause. Was it because of changes in police behavior, public behavior, or some combination of the two? It’s even possible that behavior has nothing to do with it. White asks whether “changes in citizen complaint reporting patterns” might simply amount to a reduction in frivolous complaints. We might speculate that it’s also possible that citizens with a grievance are intimidated by the fact that police possess a record of their encounter to which the complaining citizen has no access.

To be confident about cameras’ effects on behavior, we’d need much more research, without which White thinks we can’t be confident about the upside of cameras. Meanwhile, we still have to worry about their downsides, including the knowledge that the trauma suffered by all parties as a result of a crime has been recorded. For police, there are a range of hidden costs associated with training, administration, and compliance in the roll-out of new technology. And manufacturers like Taser are banking on ongoing expenses long after the cameras have been bought.

Given that there are so many unanswered questions, where does the faith in these devices come from? As mobile, wearable technologies streaming data into the cloud, body cameras conform to what has become a preferred model of accountability and transparency in today’s culture. We entrust our personal exercise regime to Fitbits—and our working hours to productivity trackers—because we believe these devices are neutral observers, their output unimpeachable fact.

We have more faith in the devices that augment our work and leisure than we do in other people, or even ourselves. Humans are understood to be unreliable witnesses compared with connected digital devices. Contemporary wisdom says that while people create anecdotes, devices create data. We take it for granted that sensor metrics are capable of mitigating unruly human behavior—sloth, procrastination, discrimination, and violence.

But no technological fix can remedy the inequalities that underly police violence against young black men. A camera might be able to record interactions, but it can’t arrest the ingrained prejudices that lead to racial profiling to begin with— the same prejudices that find their way into Taser’s advertising material. The video featured on Evidence.com shows a black suspect being chased.

Ultimately, police body cameras may produce fewer complaints, but perhaps fewer complaints are not really the problem in need of solving. Cameras won’t change the disproportionate presence of young black men in the criminal justice system, from arrest rates to incarceration. If anything, they create yet another avenue for corporate profiteering from that state of affairs. And, as we saw in the case of Eric Garner, there’s no guarantee that recorded evidence will bring about justice for the victims of police brutality anyway.

This post is based on research from the Intel Science and Technology Center for Social Computing