What Crowdsourcing For Police Investigations Means For Your Privacy

Imagine if gathering evidence in a criminal case was as simple as snapping a photo and uploading it to a secure database accessible by law enforcement officers. On Thursday, October 19, Axon, the manufacturer of the Taser, announced it had developed a new platform called Axon Citizen, which allows users “to submit evidence directly to law enforcement agencies only for crimes under investigation.”

According to Sid Heal, the president of the California Association of Tactical Officers, Axon Citizen will increase productivity in criminal investigations by reducing the amount of time spent by officers on the collection of relevant information. If Axon Citizen were to be implemented, it could potentially save up to $150 per hour of investigative work. However, there are legitimate concerns about how this new crowdsourcing platform may invade the privacy of citizens, even those not involved in the commission of a crime.

Axon has not publicly stated what happens to photos once they are entered into the database. In light of this lack of transparency, privacy experts have voiced concerns over Axon’s new service. Will photos be contained in a database forever, even if the case they are related to is closed? Will data be extracted from the photos and indexed to keep tabs on individual citizens? These crucial questions, which have yet to be answered, raise serious privacy concerns and thus warrant answers in order to create transparency, trust, and understanding between the American populace and Axon.

In order to deepen one’s understanding about the relevant privacy concerns, it seems valid to utilize a conceptual example: Suppose you witness a car leave the scene of an accident and subsequently snap a photo of the vehicle, and then uploaded it to the Axon Citizen database. With a clear shot of the license plate, the local police are then able to track down the vehicle and issue a citation. As the case is then closed, it seems that there would be no reason to continue to store the image in the database. However, Axon has not made it clear that in such a case all pertinent photos would be permanently deleted. Instead, by remaining silent to the numerous privacy concerns that have been voiced, Axon has opened the door for speculation as to how they will use such images.

Furthermore, anyone who has ever operated a camera knows that a photo often includes more than just the main subject. This could include bystanders, nearby vehicles, and people’s property, to name a few. When an image with many of these secondary subjects is uploaded to a database, algorithms processing the image may then begin to collect data on each subject in the photo. An image of a vehicle involved in a crime scene may yield numerous license plate numbers from cars around the primary subject, individual faces at the location of interest, and the locations of individuals at the time the photo was taken. Despite the fact that none of the bystanders were involved in a crime, they are nevertheless stored in a database ripe for tracking and analysis.

Upon the learning of these privacy infringements, many innocent bystanders would undoubtedly object to being cataloged in a database without their consent or knowledge. While Axon has not commented on its exact use of the databases it will be building, it is important that we understand the implications such a program will have on our privacy and liberty.

By turning citizens into operatives of a potential mass surveillance program, crowdsourcing information for police investigative work presents itself as a new intrusion into our right to privacy. Fortunately, we are empowered to voice our concerns before this technology takes hold. We can band together and ask Axon to clearly outline how they will use their image databases. We can also refuse to use Axon Citizen, and without citizen users their service will be of no use. There are also potential alternatives to Axon Citizen, like sending evidence and crime tips directly to local police departments where trained experts, not a corporation with computer algorithms, can put these materials to their best use.

This isn’t another alarmist op-ed. It is simply a call to action for citizens to educate themselves about the dangers of surveillance technologies and what they can do to protect their privacy with the advent of crowdsourced data.

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