Data Detectives: More data and surveillance are transforming justice systems

Special issue by The Economist: “…the relationship between information and crime has changed in two ways, one absolute, one relative. In absolute terms, people generate more searchable information than they used to. Smartphones passively track and record where people go, who they talk to and for how long; their apps reveal subtler personal information, such as their political views, what they like to read and watch and how they spend their money. As more appliances and accoutrements become networked, so the amount of information people inadvertently create will continue to grow.

To track a suspect’s movements and conversations, police chiefs no longer need to allocate dozens of officers for round-the-clock stakeouts. They just need to seize the suspect’s phone and bypass its encryption. If he drives, police cars, streetlights and car parks equipped with automatic number-plate readers (ANPRs, known in America as automatic licence-plate readers or ALPRs) can track all his movements.

In relative terms, the gap between information technology and policy gapes ever wider. Most privacy laws were written for the age of postal services and fixed-line telephones. Courts give citizens protection from governments entering their homes or rifling through their personal papers. The law on people’s digital presence is less clear. In most liberal countries, police still must convince a judge to let them eavesdrop on phone calls.

But mobile-phone “metadata”—not the actual conversations, but data about who was called and when—enjoy less stringent protections. In 2006 the European Union issued a directive requiring telecom firms to retain customer metadata for up to two years for use in potential crime investigations. The European Court of Justice invalidated that law in 2014, after numerous countries challenged it in court, saying that it interfered with “the fundamental rights to respect for private life”. Today data-retention laws vary widely in Europe. Laws, and their interpretation, are changing in America, too. A case before the Supreme Court will determine whether police need a warrant to obtain metadata.

Less shoe leather

If you drive in a city anywhere in the developed world, ANPRs are almost certainly tracking you. This is not illegal. Police do not generally need a warrant to follow someone in public. However, people not suspected of committing a crime do not usually expect authorities to amass terabytes of data on every person they have met and every business visited. ANPRs offer a lot of that.

To some people, this may not matter. Toplines, an Israeli ANPR firm, wants to add voice- and facial-recognition to its Bluetooth-enabled cameras, and install them on private vehicles, turning every car on the road into a “mobile broadcast system” that collects and transmits data to a control centre that security forces can access. Its founder posits that insurance-rate discounts could incentivise drivers to become, in effect, freelance roving crime-detection units for the police, subjecting unwitting citizens to constant surveillance. In answer to a question about the implications of such data for privacy, a Toplines employee shrugs: Facebook and WhatsApp are spying on us anyway, he says. If the stream of information keeps people safer, who could object? “Privacy is dead.”

It is not. But this dangerously complacent attitude brings its demise ever closer….(More)”.