Lately a whole slew of new technologies are being introduced for use by the police. These new technological advancements are taking criminal investigation techniques the next level and beyond. They can range from mere instrumental upgrades to sensory enhancements that would even make Tony Stark envious.
Some of these new criminal investigation tools are raising concerns for ordinary citizens, mostly in the area of privacy. As we have seen with the introduction of technology in other areas of life (such as TSA body scans), the decent of the future upon us is not always welcomed by everyone.
Let’s take a look at some of the new police technology that is slowly making its way into criminal investigations:
Facial Recognition & Iris Scanning devices: New facial recognition technology would allow police to take a snapshot of someone’s face in public from as far away as five feet. They could then quickly scan the photo using a device that attaches to an iPhone, which compares the results to criminal databases. The device can be also be used to scan a person’s iris for recognition purposes.
Some say that such “facial profiling” can lead to more accurate identifications and minimize practices like racial profiling. However, many also feel that facial profiling is dangerous and the equivalent of nabbing someone’s fingerprints in public without their consent.
X-Ray Vans: Unmarked vans containing powerful x-ray equipment have already been deployed in some jurisdictions. The x-ray vans allow the police to peek inside of vehicles, houses, and other buildings. The resulting x-ray images are comparable to those yielded by TSA airport body scans. Recent reports state that the vans sometimes reveal illegal migrants being transported in trucks.
The x-ray equipment used in such vans has already been in use for several years now, mainly at checkpoints for trucks engaged in industrial commerce. However, their use in residential neighborhoods for criminal investigation purposes is unsettling, not just in terms of privacy, but also because the vans emit x-ray radiations.
GPS Tracking Darts: A new device allows police to shoot a small sticky dart containing a micro GPS tracker from the grill of their patrol car (Batman style) onto a suspect’s vehicle. This allows both the patrol officer and the precinct to monitor the vehicle’s location from a distance, undetected. Police report that it has been hugely successful in apprehending fleeing suspects and smugglers.
The police should have at least some level of reasonable suspicion before using the dart tracking system, which is called the “StarChase Pursuit Management System”. The Supreme Court is set to issue a ruling sometime next year regarding the use of GPS tracking without a warrant.
Website Evidence: Ok, so the monitoring of online internet data for criminal evidence purpose is not exactly “new” news. We’re all familiar with what is now being called “Facebook” evidence– information gleaned from social network sites which contradict witness testimony.
However, the scope of websites that police, attorneys, and judges can scour for information is rapidly expanding, and other sites are now being hit up. The boys in blue are growing fond of online sales sites such as eBay and Amazon, searching in particular for the sale of stolen goods, confiscated items, and illegal contraband (such as Michael Phelps’ bong).
These new technologies might actually help with police safety and efficiency, but they really do need to be used carefully. For example, police still need to comply with warrant requirements where they are necessary. And they still need to follow 4th Amendment rules regarding people’s reasonable expectations of privacy.
Early cases such as Katz vs. U.S. and Kyllo vs. U.S. laid the legal framework for the limits of high-tech police technology (which, back then, consisted of wiretaps and infrared thermal imaging). One of the guiding legal principles in these cases is that warrantless police searches through high-tech means could be unconstitutional if such technology is not in use in the general public.
The reasoning is that if the public has access to such devices, then one does not really have a “reasonable expectation of privacy” from the devices, since anyone would be able to use them, not just the police. For example, one reason why Facebook evidence is acceptable is because it is in use by the general public. In contrast, police might need a warrant for devices that are less accessible to the public, such as the GPS darts.
This brings up a major, major point with these newer police technologies- in some case we actually don’t know whether they are “in use in the general public” or not.
To illustrate, the company that manufactured the x-ray vans mentioned above stated that they have already sold over 500 units. However, the company isn’t fully disclosing who they sold them to. Now that is both disappointing and a bit scary. Not only does that make obscure the legal standards, to me that’s just plain dangerous. We don’t know whether they sold them to police, to terrorist groups, or to some overly enthusiastic pranksters.
That being said, one thing is sure- these new police technologies need to be regulated much more tightly than they currently are. To me it is absolutely unacceptable that such technology might fall into the hands of the wrong people. Even worse though, is that the lack of clearer guidelines on police technology leaves the public in the dark with regards to their privacy rights.