Essays on Technology and Culture

False Transparency

Following the shooting death of unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown at the hands of a police officer, there was a push for body camera on police officers. The idea being that cameras on cops would reduce the potential for police brutality, and help officers behave. There may still be merit to this, as pilot programs for police body cameras show a decline in both the use of force, and complaints. However, it seems that data comes from a sum total of five studies, according to a piece in The Atlantic.

A few days ago, here in New York City, a Staten Island grand jury chose not to prosecute an NYPD officer accused of killing a non-violent offender, with an illegal chokehold. Unlike the Ferguson shooting, where all there was to go by was eyewitness testimony, the death of Eric Garner was caught on video. Even with the entire incident, from initial contact, to death, to the arrival of an ambulance all on video, the Staten Island grand jury opted not to prosecute. Grand juries often elect to prosecute, that is, unless they’re dealing with a police officer.

The principle behind body cameras on police, is that the officers will know they’re being watched—never mind the the cameras are worn on their bodies, meaning everyone but the officer is the one being watched—and as such, behave more ethically. It’s the same basic attitude behind other attempts to bring transparency to public organizations. The idea that enough people will have their eyes on what police officers, politicians, and any other organization that relies on the public trust will be enough to convince them to behave ethically only works if there are consequences for violating that trust. And if they can be caught doing so. Cameras can “malfunction,” video files can be lost in a crash. For other public servants, they can just dump enough data that even the most civically minded hacker can’t sort through and analyze it. Even adding a CAPTCHA before allowing a person access to data can be enough friction to shut down citizen watchdogs.

But why even bother with all of that work, when you know that you won’t even be held accountable when there’s incontrovertible evidence of your action spreading all over the Internet?

Technological solutions to societal problems are often a band-aid applied to a festering cyst. It’s a surface treatment that ignores the underlying issue. Or, as Douglas Adams said, “A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools.” When trying to put a stop to corruption, it’s easy to both under- and overestimate the ingenuity of complete assholes, to say nothing about the complacency of common individuals with no stake in the game. Of course, changing the expectations we have of public servants, is harder than just throwing money at hardware that provides false transparency. No wonder we’re so much more willing to do the latter.