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Apr 28 2015   1:22PM GMT

No Escape From the Black Hole of a Police Database

Sharon Fisher Sharon Fisher Profile: Sharon Fisher


Remember back in elementary school? How often were you cowed into socially acceptable behavior by the threat that something would go on your permanent record?

You ain’t seen nothin’.

Increasingly, police are using technology to fight and prevent crime. Which is laudable, of course. But some of this stuff is starting to veer into Minority Report territory – you know, the 2002 Tom Cruise movie where people get arrested before they even commit the crime.

Police are using technology like social media to collect information about who people – such as gang members – might know, as well as people’s sentiments about such activities. “It is not hard to see why New York authorities are so enthusiastic about using social media in their investigations,” writes The New York World. “Unlike with a traditional wiretap, which requires a warrant, police can access public social media accounts easily — and even probe private accounts using a fake identity — with no need for a warrant.”

This information is then all put into a gang database, where it can be retrieved when needed. Once the data is stored in the database, it sits there. Forever. (Just watch a show like Blacklist or Hawaii Five-O sometime.) “For the kid listed in a gang database, it can be unclear how to get out of it,” writes Meredith Broussard in Atlantic. “In the database world, unless someone has permission to delete or amend a database record, no such change is possible. Credit agencies are required to forgive financial sins after 7 years. Police are not—at least, not consistently.” Only 12 states have policies that specifically address gang databases, only a few of them mention regular purging of information, and some specifically say that a person cannot even find out if they have a record in the database, she adds.

For example, GitHub offers six different free, open-source database applications that anyone can download and use – but none of them contains an expiration date, any regulations about purging, or any kind of guidance on ethical use, Broussard writes.

Here’s some other examples:

  • Police in Brooklyn and Harlem use social media to create a database of suspected gang members who were burglarizing stores.
  • Cincinnati police created a database to track down gang members. “Collaborating with the University of Cincinnati’sInstitute of Crime Science, the police created databases of information scraped from social networks, existing police records and phone records, then used software to analyze the data and establish links between suspects,” writes CNN.
  • Department of Motor Vehicles databases of people’s drivers license photos are being used to help identify suspects through facial recognition – not just of mugshots, but of ordinary citizens. In 2013, 37 states used ­facial-recognition technology in their driver’s-license registries, while at least 26 of those allowed state, local or federal law enforcement agencies to search — or request searches — of photo databases in an attempt to learn the identities of people considered relevant to investigations, the Washington Post
  • Some Ohio police officers were caught using police databases for personal use, to look up information about somebody – sometimes to commit crimes against them.

Moreover, some people are concerned about the constitutional aspects of these databases. Just because you know somebody, does that mean you should be considered a suspect? “Is being ‘friends’ with someone on Facebook enough to establish the links of a criminal network?” asks The New York World.

In addition, the names of minority youth are much more likely to be collected in such databases than are white youth.

“Gang databases may also interfere with an individual’s First Amendment Freedom of Association,” writes Rebecca Rader Brown in Journal of Law & Social Problems. “Since a person may be documented for affiliating with other known or suspected gang members, he may be targeted as a suspect before committing any criminal act. Using a ‘guilt by association’ standard can have the effect of sweeping entire neighborhoods into a gang database. This effect is felt disproportionately by minority populations due to geographic targeting of anti-gang efforts. In certain localities, police tend to document minorities for behaviors that, if observed among members of the majority population, are considered innocuous.”

Plus, doesn’t having someone’s name in a database called “Suspects” interfere with the presumption of innocence? “An observational study in Arizona showed that police were more aggressive with documented gang members, using excessive force more often than with individuals not documented in a gang database,” Broussard writes. “Listing a teen in a database as a gang affiliate could bias future prosecutions against them. A district attorney or cop looking for a suspect could automatically assume that the kid who’s listed in the gang database is more likely to be involved than the kid who isn’t.”

Finally, there’s just something very Big Brotherish about the prospects of such databases. “That prospect has sparked fears that the databases authorities are building could someday be used for monitoring political rallies, sporting events or even busy downtown areas,” writes the Post. “Whatever the security benefits — especially at a time when terrorism remains a serious threat — the mass accumulation of location data on individuals could chill free speech or the right to assemble, civil libertarians say.”

Steps are underway to address some of these issues, such as having people’s records or social media histories wiped after a few years, or when they become adults. It’s also being suggested that police should be better trained in some of the ethical and constitutional aspects of these databases.

15  Comments on this Post

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  • 2UCowboy
    @Sharon, I beg to differ Madam.
    First these so-called Police Databases are NOT "Black Holes"
    Secondly "WE THE PEOPLE" can fight "City Hall" and WIN!
    Americans need to stop watching TV, Stop airing their "dirty laundry" on "Social Media".
    EVERY AMERICAN needs to study our Constitution.
    ESPECIALLY the Police and Military.
    The Constitution confers no rights.
    The framers of Our Constitution worked from the premise that
    ALL of our Human Rights are given to us by GOD.
    What the Constitution really says is that NO Government can take away or otherwise nullify our GOD Given Rights.
    Study All ten Amendments of the so called Bill of Rights.
    DEMAND that your elected and appointed officials follow them
    IF they don't file class action law suits, and vote out any elected official who does NOT defend the Constitution, which is what they are SUPPOSED to do when they take their Oath of Office.
    It's NOT a "Black Hole".  It's just a matter of education.
    OR ..."Free your mind and your a$$ will follow"  ;-)
    210 pointsBadges:
  • Sharon Fisher
    Actually, I don't think the Constitution mentions God at all. 
    9,680 pointsBadges:
  • 2UCowboy
    Well Sharon I humbly suggest you do a little research.
    First read the declaration of Independence.
    Next study the Federalist Papers. These two documents form the basis of Our Constitution.
    You will find the concept of GOD given UNALIENABLE Rights.
    What the Constitution does spell out clearly is that Congress shall make no Law concerning a National Religion.
    (NOT Separation of Church and State, However that concept is from the Federalist papers)  Which simply stated is that Congress cannot pass legislation declaring the the Official State Religion will be e.g. Roman Catholic, or Lutheran, or Baptist. 
    However American citizens have the GOD given right to believe in whatever religion they choose, they even have the GOD given right
    Not to believe in GOD at all. (How about that ??)
    You see Sharon, if the concept of our human rights coming from GOD and no government can take them away.... If that concept is cast away, then you might as well slip on your swastika armband, because what your now saying is the government controls our human rights and that's a really bad thing.
    Please do read the Declaration of Independence ... it will make you think about our country's present state of affairs, i.e. the relationship between Federal, State, and Local governments and the People of the United States of America...
    Read the preamble of the Constitution..it starts out with:
    WE THE PEOPLE (all caps, we are "shouting")
    210 pointsBadges:
  • Sharon Fisher
    I've done enough research that I know the difference between the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers. 
    9,680 pointsBadges:
  • 2UCowboy
    Well then, if you don't mind my asking.
    Do you hold to and believe in the Constitution and the principals
    of the Declaration of Independence?
     Would you agree that the idea of "Police Databases", and the practice of unwarranted surveillance, search, and seizure
    e.g. being search at the airport WITHOUT probable cause.
    as gross violations of our 4th Amendment right? 
    210 pointsBadges:
  • Sharon Fisher
    You did read the article, right?
    9,680 pointsBadges:
  • 2UCowboy
    Yes I did and I stand corrected ...
    I took exception at the idea of "No Escape from the Black Hole of a Police Database" ...
    My effort is in teaching people to:
    1) Know the Constitution and understand that their rights are GOD given, and no government can take away those rights
    2) Once a person knows this then we should all band together to
        fight injustice and the violation of our rights by any government official and/or agency. 
    Saying there's "no escape" smacks of defeatism to me. 
    210 pointsBadges:
  • JamesMcMann
    The courts have constantly ruled on the 4th Ammendment that an expectation of privacy while in a public arena is not valid.  If you make a cell call while on the street, in public, no warrant is needed to listen in to your conversation. If you are acting "suspiciously," again in public, then the police have a right to stop and question you.  Databases are a repository of your actions and while some inference of guilt by simple association may bring you to the attention of the authorities, for the most part it should not interfere with your daily life.   People who post intimate details on the internet are fair game to all. Once more, there can be no expectation of privacy on the public internet.  Airports are public places as are roads, so being stopped and frisked at either location is also quite legal. If you expect problems, wear a camera and record all contrarian circumstances. 
    20 pointsBadges:
  • 2UCowboy
    @ JamesMcMann
    While I agree that anyone who posts on the internet should have no expectation of privacy,
    You are FLAT OUT WRONG on phone calls.
    What constitutes "acting suspiciously" ??? It's purely subjective.
    Most Police Officers and Military have very little understanding of our Constitution and the FACT that  our human rights are GOD given and NOT controlled by the government.
    While airports are public places does NOT mean our 4th amendment rights should be violated.
    Quite frankly the so-called "Patriot Act" is in reality the
     "National Socialism Act"  
    I served 4 years in the Marine Corps (1965 - 1969) and I took  an
    Oath to Uphold and Defend the Constitution against ALL enemies
    Foreign and DOMESTIC.
    We have in this country today a LOT of domestic enemies of the
    Constitution which includes the NSA, MOST  elected officials and the Federal Reserve Board and the Supreme Court.
    There are too many cryptic nazis that must be ferreted out.
    This calls for education of what our constitution means and how it applies to American Citizens today.  
    NEVER forget that most German citizen's went along with Hitler's
    program... everyone said please be quiet and don't complain, as the Third Reich slowly but surely took away their rights.
    I for one WILL NOT let that happen in this country.
    210 pointsBadges:
  • JamesMcMann
    It is not a question of simple public apathy,which I agree is an issue and which has been replayed through history time and again. For some reason the founding ethos no longer seem to resonate with the masses. So what we see is a willing capitulation to a yet defined dogma of life, but a certain rejection of what makes this country super-exceptional. I hope you do not regret your military service in thinking that those efforts were futile, One can understand such a sentiment considering the world around us, but you stood up and were counted. You did something for our betterment.  Not many of our countrymen are willing to do the same.  So now what?       
    20 pointsBadges:
  • 2UCowboy
    Well my approach is to simply inform people who are willing to listen
    about their Constitutional rights. especially young people, they are the ones who will inherit this mess. I know a fair number of police officers (most are retired,but some are still active duty) I emphasize the importance of knowing and understanding the Constitution.
    I write to legislators on the National and State level encouraging legislation that will have every student whether public, private, or home-schooled, that at age 12-13 each student should know and
    understand the history of the constitution and be familiar with the
    "Bill of Rights", and this "standard" should continue on thru high-school and college.
    The same for the military and all police agencies, each individual
    should at periodic intervals be tested on their understanding of the Constitution as a condition of continued employment and advancement in rank.
    A well educated citizenry is the BEST defense against tyranny.
    No I don't regret my time in the Marine Corps at all.
    I always tell people it was the BEST mistake I ever made. ;-)  
    210 pointsBadges:
  • Sharon Fisher
    It's why I'm a proud card-carrying member of the ACLU!
    9,680 pointsBadges:
  • 2UCowboy
    Me too!

    210 pointsBadges:
  • TheRealRaven
    @2UCowboy: You need to re-read the Declaration of Independence. Then you need to learn to understand what it says. And finally, you need to realize that it has zero legal standing in the USA. The USA didn't exist then, and it didn't exist until quite a few years later. The document might have been granted some legal standing under the earlier Articles of Confederation which was much more closely aligned with principles of the Declaration. When that form of government showed itself to be unworkable here, efforts began on the Constitution. That was farther from those originally declared principles and eventually formed the basis of the USA.

    Further, even in the Declaration, "God" is only mentioned once as part of a description of how a people should be viewed when compared to other peoples -- "...the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them". That's not a statement of rights. When individual rights are mentioned, they're said to be "...endowed by their Creator" with no definition of what anyone's "Creator" might be. Perhaps the "Laws of Nature"?

    One point is that religious power in political circles was greater then. Yet even under what was often religious oppression, there was clear effort to avoid direct linkage between the two, most particularly any legal linkage. It is (rightfully) left to conscience alone.

    Now, this blog post isn't about religious issues. Still, the past history of religious interference in political actions can serve as a warning. If police powers are allowed to grow and expand into new areas, it will eventually reach a point where it becomes oppressive to all of us, just as religious oppression can be.

    As such, if it is now (i.e., 'still') used in ways that are oppressive to minorities, whether racial, geographic, economic or other, we all should oppose it in our best fashions.

    Especially in that respect, you are definitely right. The Declaration and the Constitution both should be read more often by Americans. The power of the Declaration is in the emotional charge it can give. The power of the Constitution is in laws that are based upon it plus the knowledge of when those laws are wrong and when we should stand against them.

    Without that, a police database is a "Black Hole".

    And unfortunately, how close do you think we are to that state of things? Perhaps you and some friends around you have read both documents a few times and tried to understand them. But what's your guess about the other 330 million Americans? What percentage has done the same since becoming tax-paying adults?
    35,650 pointsBadges:
  • 2UCowboy
    Your points are well taken, However I will re-iterate again.
    IF our "rights" are not GOD given, then the only other "source"
    is humanity, and let's face humans are fickle and imperfect.
    Even the right NOT to believe in GOD is in fact GOD given.
    Religions exist because groups of humans decided to "invent" a god that fits their life-style, instead of changing their life to "fit"
    The WORD of GOD. 
    That's why "..Congress shall make no law regarding the establishment of a state religion.."
    "Nature" is just another way of admitting there is a GOD without
    using GOD. Use of GOD apparently troubles some people.
    I am NOT talking about religion.
    However the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution
    are closely intertwined and they stand together.
    I urge everyone I know read and understand the Constitution.
    I write legislators and both the state and federal levels to enact
    legislation regarding educating all children in this country on the
    Constitution whether they are public, private, or home schooled.   
    210 pointsBadges:

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