As COVID-19 continues to take its toll, we find ourselves desperate for ways to mitigate disaster. Using this desperation as an opportunity, various entities in the tech industry are unveiling tools and schemes to control the pandemic with high-tech solutions, making it difficult to see alternatives to surveillance as safety. From contact tracing to publicizing personal location data, these plans demonstrate that there isn’t an aspect of life that can’t be tracked and weaponized against the viral threat. It is in this vein that the predictive policing corporation PredPol recently released a post proposing its own solution: police officers as “de facto public health officers,” using location data such as “potential Covid-19 patients near that location, or other environmental factors” or “residences subject to stay-home orders” to police our movements.
As a result of community pressure, LAPD announced last month that they would no longer be working with PredPol — the algorithmic system whose promotional materials equated criminals to hunter-gatherers on the prowl for gazelles. Where PredPol creators saw opportunities to profit from algorithmically policing the same marginalized communities consistently targeted by police, the corporation now envisions a similar goldmine in the COVID-19 response. These are the dangers of techno-solutionism: advertising technology as the solution to any and every problem, rather than discussing how our present social and political conditions create these problems, and then working to change these conditions themselves. What is especially alarming about PredPol’s particular solution is that it enhances and legitimizes the power and authority of the police in moments of social disaster, at a time when we’ve seen the way the pandemic highlights the racism and violence of policing.
PredPol’s plan to bring police technology to the healthcare market isn’t all that surprising if we consider the public and private partnerships that make up the stalker state: the network of interconnected data streams, consumer technologies, and government surveillance programs that centralizes and extends the power of law enforcement. Although the organizations that make up this network of partnerships propose to make our lives safer (Amazon Ring), more efficient (5G), and more convenient (Microsoft Nest), they have their sights set on long-term profit. By embedding their products so deeply into our everyday infrastructure and social relationships, these companies insidiously normalize new forms of surveillance and data collection. For PredPol and other similar programs, this means that their proposed solutions to COVID-19 containment will remain in place once the pandemic has subsided, repackaged yet again for another surveillance project.
PredPol Was Always Racist
Although PredPol claims to be race neutral because they target “places” instead of people, we know that location is a proxy for race and that PredPol targets Black, Brown, and poor communities to protect the interests of white supremacy and profit. Further, PredPol depends on pseudoscience to disguise the racist violence of policing with math. UCLA professor Jeff Brantingham, who co-created the Predpol algorithm and jumpstarted PredPol Inc., uses scientific research to justify the effectiveness of PredPol, but this very research is authored by PredPol’s creators. Over 450 academics signed a letter rejecting the scientific merit of PredPol, saying that it represents the “most troubling legacies of anthropology and the social sciences.”
Expanding the use of PredPol amid the current crisis would only exacerbate the effects of its inherent biases. Systemic racism and settler colonialism is ingrained in the very fabric of American society, as evidenced by the ways in which Black and Indigenous communities are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. Using COVID-19 infection rates to create PredPol hotspots would reinforce already oppressive policing practices in these communities. There would be more fines for these communities, like we already see in racial disparities in pandemic ticketing practices, at a time when many in these communities are struggling with unemployment due to the pandemic itself — a recent USC study shows that the coronavirus has led to outsized job losses among Black and Latinx people. In addition, more arrests compound the already abhorrent violence of incarceration by increasing exposure to the virus, as people who are incarcerated are one of the groups most impacted by the pandemic. And these impacts would come on top of further losses of dignity due to continual police surveillance. Placing COVID-19 data into the PredPol system would encourage punitive approaches to a shared global health problem and amplify the already disproportionate harm experienced by Black and Indigenous communities.
Not a Moment in Time
These police-driven responses to this crisis are not an isolated moment in time, but part of the US government’s long history of exploiting emergencies to expand policing, punishment, and surveillance. Many of the oppressive tactics, laws, and tools we are fighting against today were initially introduced as crisis responses. In 1996, soon after white nationalists bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City, Congress passed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA). In actuality, this law was used to limit the legal rights of incarcerated people and further expanded capital punishment and life sentences for Black, Brown, and poor people. Within weeks of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Congress passed a series of repressive laws expanding surveillance and detention, including the Patriot Act. The technological and bureaucratic infrastructure created as a result of this legislature now informs and scaffolds the current expansion of the national security police state. The long-term impacts of these shifts have included the ongoing targeting of and violence towards undocumented, Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities.
If we apply these lessons from the history of crisis exploitation to the current COVID-19 landscape, what does the near and distant future look like? Policing and surveillance have only made our communities less safe and integrating PredPol into a public health response will only endanger the lives of more people. Given the persistence of surveillance programs created in response to earlier crises, new systems — like PredPol in response to the pandemic — would not be easily dismantled. Once data collected by this infrastructure exists, it has the potential to be used in the future for any purpose, and combined with other forms of geographic, health, and service data for the expansion of the stalker state. The mission creep of police officers to include public health under their purview will lead to increased resources for and reliance on a violent police state to solve our collective social issues.
We Cannot Police Our Way Out of the Pandemic
We demand that our local governments keep PredPol, Inc — and all other companies profiting off of carceral technologies — out of the COVID-19 public health response. PredPol and all policing technologies like it need to be dismantled for the racist violence they inflict on our communities, not expanded into more and more domains of our lives. Our fight against LAPD has shown that when the community comes together and organizes, we can dismantle these harmful programs. But PredPol continues to impact communities around the country including in Dallas, TX, El Monte, CA and potentially dozens of others. We must continue to put pressure locally to end PredPol and other predictive or data-driven policing technologies everywhere.
Just as we cannot police our way out of poverty, racism, or other complex social issues, we cannot police our way out of this pandemic. Calling police officers “de facto public health officers” is an attempt to integrate a system of violence into a response that is supposed to have people’s health and safety as a goal. At a time as dire as this, we need real solutions that are designed to support health and wellbeing — not money grabs from tech companies. Saving lives should be based on life-affirming resources: equitable healthcare, housing, and the financial resources to support compliance with lockdown orders, not the punishing and profiting off of those who are unable to.
For more information on this work and Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, visit their website HERE and follow the coalition on Twitter at @stoplapdspying. To get involved in this work, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with Predictive Policing in the subject line and a brief description of your interest.