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A Note to Police Officers about Technology and Accountability

NYPD Police Officers and Occupy Wall Street Protestors Photo: Timothy Krause

(Let me first say that this is primarily directed at officers participating in actions against Occupy Wall Street, but other police officers should take heed.)

The world has changed.  Technology has permeated nearly every aspect of modern life and policing is no exception.  The same forces responsible for all your new counterterrorism toys you use against Occupy Wall Street protestors have given the protestors toys of their own to protect themselves.  Even if you weren't paying attention to the Arab Spring or missed the first couple OWS crackdowns, you are probably now aware that instead of running away from beatings with billy clubs and pepper spray attacks, protestors are running toward you with cell phones and cameras to document and expose your misdeeds.  This is seen by many as a great sign of hope.

You may not agree that putting power in the hands of the people and giving them a non-violent tool of resistance is a good idea.  It does after all make your job harder.  But it doesn't seem to have made too much of a difference in police tactics over the last few weeks.  Non-violent protestors have been beaten, pepper sprayed, had horses ridden into them, been crushed by metal barriers, and outright assaulted.  Put some electrical tape over your name and badge number and you're set, right?  Wrong.  The age of anonymity is over.

Two technological forces are going to make damn well sure that your conduct is never forgotten.  The ability to use algorithms to search large databases, called data mining, and facial recognition technology may not be developed enough to out you today, but you are going to have to explain your actions to your grandchildren if not your children.

It's not just feasible, but highly likely that there is footage of you suppressing 1st amendment rights with violence.  Now Facebook already has facial recognition technology that can pick your face out of a photo and identify you-- and that's Facebook, a free service that requires no technical know-how to operate.  Soon your face will be picked out from citizen journalist videos.  Maybe not this year, but soon.  When these images are part of the searchable public domain along with identity information, how will you feel explaining your activities?  I don't think just following orders will convince your daughter or granddaughter that you're a great person for pulling a woman to the ground by her hair or shooting a woman with rubber bullets at close range.

What about data mining?  I'm sure you've chatted with your colleagues about the huge document leaks where private information from law enforcement have been published on the Internet.  PERF, the organization that coordinated many of last week's raids had all it's internal e-mails and documents published.  Lt. John Pike of UC Davis fame had his personal details linked today.  It's called d0xing by the way.  Did you know that the hacker group Antisec does a weekly dump called FuckFBI Fridays?  That's one group dedicated to just FBI dumps. There are a lot of teenagers out there sitting in front of computers with nothing to do.  Which is nothing if the shift records from your police departments enter the public domain through FOIA requests or through court proceedings.  Either way, the information can't stay hidden for long.

Soon enough, it will be possible to search these databases to see who worked when and use an algorithm to match them to the pictures and video taken on that day along with your identity information.  We're not talking a huge conceptual leap here.  If the data is out there people will connect the dots; it's only a question of when.

Imagine this: your son, daughter, grandson, granddaughter, etc. is sitting in front of a screen with time to kill and enters your name into a search engine.  The search results include pictures and video of you using violence against non-violent protestors.  The pictures and video are supported with government documents proving that you were there when the grainy images were taken.  How will you explain your actions?  Can you imagine watching footage of Civil Rights era protestors attacked by police and dogs and having the assailants rationalize the brutality?  My guess is that you will have just as hard a time.

The technology to provide the raw materials, the documentation of your actions against the Occupy movement, already exists.  Every day thousands of hours of footage and thousands of pictures are uploaded onto the Web.  The only way to escape the curse of your actions is to change the narrative.  Change your actions.  History is rich with examples of individuals who defied the chain of command, who conducted themselves with character and were given the benign judgment of history in return.  There are no more do-overs.

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