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Biased Technology and Policing in the Age of Big Data

Every March, a diverse and inventive group of people converge in Austin, Texas to attend South By Southwest (SXSW), an event best known as a music festival founded in 1987. Since then, however, it has evolved into a conference that brings together the interactive, film, and music industries.

At this year’s SXSW festival, a majority of conversations centered around data and technology, as well as their potential impacts on policing and other major problems in modern society.

Biased Technology

One panel discussion titled “Redefining Sanctuary Cities” presented a new view of data, discussing how historically prejudiced police forces had developed biased technology that causes harm to immigrants and marginalized communities.

Chief Equity Officer Brion Oaks of the City Of Austin said that because immigration is so directly connected with criminal justice, the inevitable outcome was that people of color would be disproportionately affected. His role as Equity Officer is a newer role that the city created in order to promote racial equality in Austin; thus, Oaks is instrumental in policy, leadership and guidance.

Oaks and other panelists are dedicated to protecting immigrant communities, and they say that both understanding and dealing with racism is a huge part of that dedication. Referencing the “sh*thole countries” remark made by President Trump in regards to nations like Haiti and El Salvador, Oaks thinks the president’s administration is particularly racist, so he says dealing with racism is of utmost importance during these next few years.


Executive Director of the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law Alvaro Bedoya also served as a panelist, saying that seemingly innocent data collection techniques are being used by the Trump administration to target immigrant communities. For example, Bedoya says that cities collect demographics to better serve their own populations, but this data can be used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to target immigrant populations, in what he described as “crimmigation.”

Former Department of Justice Civil Rights Division employee Vanita Gupta said that the pairing of immigration and criminal justice has taken place just over the last decade. Interestingly, most of this happened under President Obama, and Gupta says that the change meant that local police departments began functioning like local ICE agents. Now, immigrant communities are very reluctant to have contact with or work with law enforcement on any local level—they’d even rather keep silent than report a crime at risk of being targeted.

Gupta said that the problem is even worse when local law enforcement uses data and technology as part of this policing effort. She reiterated that these technologies are often created by people with bias—perhaps not a conscious bias, but Gupta says the historical U.S. racial bias does makes its way into the data, which then becomes subjective rather than objective.

The panel used the “Baltimore stingray map” as an example of biased data. Police disproportionately used cell phone tracking devices in areas of the city that had more people of color, but the defense is typically that “they’re just doing their jobs,” and they’re “targeting the areas where crime actually occurs.”

Rethinking Policing in the Age of Big Data

Cities are also trying to do their jobs by doing the right things for their immigrant communities. Bedoya says there must be open communication between cities, police and immigrant communities, but he says that conversations about immigrant rights and racial justice rarely happen.

Several groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have begun rethinking the whole relationship. As a result, the ACLU developed Community Control Over Police Surveillance. It gives residents a voice when police conduct community surveillance operations, especially since the police are paid for with taxpayer money. Community members can comment, and in some cases, can actually have the community approve the measures before they are put into place.

Harris County in Houston has alternative programs that also help to protect against “crimmigation”. For example, people charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession can attend a behavior class in lieu of fines or jail time. Oaks says that for some people, the first fingerprinting experience with the jail visit can start a chain reaction of events, and that everyone should work together on the local level to keep those people out of the criminal justice system.


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Jacqueline Havelka

Jacqueline is a rocket scientist turned writer. She covers health, science and tech news for Citizen Truth. In her first career, she managed experiments & data on the Space Station & Shuttle.

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