November 15, 2021

The Corporate Shadow in Democratic Policing

[Cross-posted from Science]

By Elizabeth Joh

Abstract: Facial recognition, body cameras, and other digital technologies are increasingly commonplace tools of police departments. These provide police with an increased ability to collect vast stores of information on our movements and habits, both online and in real life. These new forms of investigation have led to successes in ways that might not have been possible with traditional policing. But they also raise the specter of unchecked police surveillance. As a result, privacy and civil liberties groups have raised concerns about how much control we have over the most intimate details of our lives. But there is another, less obvious, challenge to democratic policing from these profound changes. Private companies, not public agencies, are typically responsible for the design, production, and sales of products like body cameras and facial recognition software. That the police neither design nor produce the tools that raise some of the most important questions about privacy and civil liberties today has profound consequences for how we think about democratic policing. Perhaps the central dilemma about this corporate shadow in policing is the tensions that exist between public accountability and private interests when police departments are customers.