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US has well-oiled funding machine putting advanced data tools in cops’ hands

US has well-oiled funding machine putting advanced data tools in cops’ hands

A new examination of how the U.S. government pays for experimental and new police data systems shows how far consequential technology development can go with vaporous critical challenge.

Not that most Americans, who perceive crime to be a far greater local and national problem than police statistics bear out, are in the mood to debate increased government use of biometric identification and surveillance.

In an article written by American University law professor Andrew Guthrie Ferguson for The Conversation, the federal government is described as using multiple inputs, including funding, to get new data weapons into the hands of police rapidly.

Ferguson studies big-data surveillance. His article largely focuses on the history of predictive policing, which he said is based on “arguably racially discriminatory algorithms that have never been proven to work as intended.”

That is despite millions of development dollars invested in the software by the Justice Department and lesser-known sub-agencies including the incubator-like National Institute of Justice.

Ferguson details how funding builds momentum as it flows in support of new data technology through the Justice Department’s bureaucracy. By the time a new tool is ready, in the government’s eyes, for street deployment, the only question by police chiefs is how fast can it be installed.

He identifies $3 million in funding for facial recognition among federal grants to state or local authorities, and biometrics are also implicated in the faddish acceptance of so-called real-time crime centers. Biometric capabilities are an optional tool in the centers. He also notes the DOJ and DHS asked for public comment to be part of a National Academy of Sciences report on facial recognition released earlier this year.

One of the final Justice Department inputs to development and deployment, its Bureau of Justice Assistance, is subsidizing local acquisition of the centers, as it did predictive policing.

No doubt, most taxpayers don’t know about the low-analysis technology production described by Ferguson. But it’s unclear if it would change public opinion much.

A poll by San Francisco’s chamber of commerce (which, obviously, has a dog in this fight) indicates that 61 percent of potential voters said they support a ballot initiative on whether police should get more elbow room when it comes to using biometric surveillance.

For clarity, they were only saying they wanted a chance to vote on the idea. Californians have grown more conservative on crime prevention. But it’s as likely as not that voters would want more cameras and microphones around the city to catch suspects.

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