Last summer, as he rallied supporters at the Republican National Convention, Donald Trump declared himself the “law and order candidate,” echoing the (somewhat ironic) claims of Richard Nixon before him. Yet given the rapid development of technology available to law enforcement in the decades since Nixon occupied the Oval Office, President Trump’s use of the phrase differs from Nixon’s in other ways beyond what we can only presume to be his sincerity.
Prior to Trump’s inauguration last week, his comments about surveillance, along with a recent report on his transition team’s ties to biometrics and facial recognition firms, fueled speculation that the new U.S. president would step up the government’s use of these controversial monitoring technologies. If Trump’s inaugural speech is any indication, such predictions seem likely to come true.
During the campaign, Trump emphasized that he would at the very least pursue aggressive surveillance of Muslims and perhaps even seek to ban members of the religion from entering the U.S. In his inauguration speech, he pledged to “unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth.”
Trump will also address the problem of “the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential,” he said. “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”
As one tool in law enforcement’s arsenal in this effort, the Federal Bureau of Investigation already has access to a massive face recognition database that includes over 400 million photos of more than half of US adults, or over 117 million people. Serious questions of racial bias have been raised, however, specifically as to whether facial recognition software is less accurate when applied to images of black people’s faces.
Trump has already received cautious praise from some on the left for his scrapping of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership. Another tactic ostensibly aimed at generating bipartisan goodwill that he could conceivably attempt — but this one really aimed at furthering his aggressive law-and-order agenda — would involve embracing an evolving approach to the ever-politicized problem of “gun violence.”
While the Republican-controlled government is unlikely to take up the Democrats on their longstanding request to allow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to fund research into the “gun violence epidemic” as a disease, recently reported research that adopts a “social contagion” model of homicides by firearm might be appealing to Trump.
Researchers who embrace this model contend that “violence itself may spread from person to person like a virus, meaning that particular networks of people, not whole neighborhoods or demographic groups, are most at risk,” according to the Guardian.
The seemingly well-meaning coverage of this topic, including from relatively mainstream liberal outlets such as the Guardian, has not hesitated to note that America’s shootings and gun deaths — that is, those not caused by suicide, though these are frequently thrown in with other gun violence statistics — are often concentrated in poor minority neighborhoods, and particularly black neighborhoods. Yet within these neighborhoods, “the risk of violence is further clustered within specific social networks of high-risk people,” the Guardian reports. “Sometimes these are people whom police identify as gang members; sometimes they are not.” The article continues:
In Chicago, analysts working with police department data found that, over a six-year period, 70% of nonfatal shootings and 46% of gun homicides happened within a sprawling social network that included just 6% of Chicago’s total population.
Similar analyses in Oakland and New Orleans found even smaller percentages of residents driving the majority of the violence. In Oakland, analysts found that networks of just 1,000 to 1,200 high-risk people, about .3% of Oakland’s population, were involved in about 60% of the city’s murders. In New Orleans, just 600 to 700 people, less than 1% of the city’s population, were involved in more than 50% of fatal incidents.
The views of social scientists who are pointing to aggressive targeting of these “social networks” and “high-risk people” as the answer to problems of crime and public safety seem to coincide with the agenda of the FBI, which has been pursuing a program of “Social Network Analysis.” And the networking opportunities enabled by the internet — most notably, but not solely, social media platforms — have certainly made this intrusive process easier for the feds, who like to stockpile as much social media information as they can — on everyone from their own employees to foreigners visiting the country.
Researchers have been working for some time on algorithms to automatically censor social media and to use it to (allegedly) predict terrorist attacks. The FBI can, in some circumstances, impersonate journalists in its efforts to ensnare the bad guys. The Pentagon would like to go further, however, with a plan to develop the capability to mimic a whole internet through fake search engines and social media platforms. Some national security thinkers, meanwhile, have suggested automating the process of identifying and radicalizing at-risk would-be jihadists, before they can radicalize themselves, through the use of chatbots.
Profiling people based on correlational data drawn from extensive surveillance of every aspect of their lives and their communications is not only highly invasive, however, but a deeply flawed method.
“Although predictive technologies present a certain vision of the future, the specifics of how they will be used going forward are not clear,” writes Sidney Fussell of Gizmodo. “Looking at the many barriers to fairness and transparency we see in the present evinces there’s still much work to be done to prevent abuse. It’s pointless to predict gun violence if those predictions only serve as statistical justification for biased police overreach.”
Whether it is sold to the political right under the banner of “law and order” or to the left as a cure for “gun violence,” the prospect of increased mass surveillance, coupled with aggressive targeted surveillance of individuals based not on actual evidence of crimes but on their fitting a given profile, carries with it potentially dangerous side effects and ominous implications for civil rights and liberties.