Academics tell UK lords that folk aren't keen on predictive policing, facial recognition, heightened surveillance

Philip K Dick is rolling in his grave

Senior UK lawmakers are being warned of an emerging pushback against the use of smart technology such as facial recognition, increased surveillance, and predictive policing to fight crime.

Leading academics have advised there is no single approach – or response to – the issue of employing algorithmic tools for law enforcement. But they did say that lawmakers need to strike the right balance as they wrestle with the nuances of crime-fighting technology versus individual rights and freedoms.

The House of Lords Justice and Home Affairs Committee kicked off the new Parliamentary term on Tuesday with a meeting that sought to assess the use of AI and other technologies from different jurisdictions across the world.

Professor Elizabeth E Joh, of the UC Davis School of Law, told the committee that the size and structure of the US law enforcement system meant that in many cases, new technologies are adopted on a case-by-case basis. She went on to say this had resulted in some concerns.

"With respect to certain technologies, we've begun to see some criticism and pushback. So, for example, while predictive policing tools were embraced by many police departments in the 2010s… in the United States, you can see small movements towards a backlash."

She mentioned an unnamed small city in California that was one of the first to adopt a predictive policing software tool, but also became one of the first to ban such programmes after it failed to deliver what had been expected.

In places such as Los Angeles, which has a significant police force, the department there has stepped back from relying on some predictive programmes, she added.

In some cases, Joh explained, there have been calls for technologies such as facial recognition to be banned but that attempts to do so have been "piecemeal" and not on a national scale.

Asked whether this pushback was down to the reliability of the technology or the ethics, Joh replied: "Both."

"Certainly, there have been concerns about, for instance, racial bias in the data that is used in tools like facial recognition," she said.

And with respect to some predictive policing tools, she suggested they "may not be as reliable or as effective as promised."

Rosamunde Elise Van Brakel, research professor in Surveillance Studies at the Vrije Universiteit in Brussels, Belgium, and co-director of the Surveillance Studies Network, was also invited to attend Tuesday's hearing to provide a European perspective on matters.

She said that in Belgium, at a political level and among federal police, there was an appetitive to innovate.

But she also countered this by saying that the experiences over the last 18 months – and the way that authorities had acted during the pandemic – had helped to modify people's opinions.

"A lot of people have started to question these new technologies," she said, "and they are feeling that they are being controlled too much by the government."

With the pressures of regulatory balance being highlighted, the panel was asked to outline the best way to develop new technologies while being "respectful of civil liberties and the rights of individuals" alongside balancing the interests of the state and law enforcement.

Van Brakel said safeguards needed to be more than just about data protection and that some new processes must be "implemented ex-ante" before investment in new technologies.

She went on to say that any introduction of new technology should be not only legally compliant but also take into account the impact it may have "on society, on democracy and on citizens' rights."

Today's hearing is the latest from the House of Lords Justice and Home Affairs Committee as senior politicians continue their fact-finding investigation into the role of new technologies and law enforcement.

In July, the committee heard from both law enforcers and computer academics and were told that while the technology can prove useful, some police forces were becoming over-reliant on digital tools.

You can watch Tuesday's hearing here. ®

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