A Civil Rights Swiss Army Knife in your Phone

Last week I wrote about Apps for driving, and this week I would like to continue the theme, but with Apps that aim to protect the user from police harassment.

The first I would like to look at is called Stop and Frisk Watch, and has been developed with the help of the non-profit organization Make The Road New York. The App is designed so that the user can record both audio and video of police interactions in the community (with the screen black so that evidence is less likely to be destroyed), is alerted when other users are doing the same in the area, and has a direct reporting system so that any interaction can be reported in real time. Just shake the phone and the video is sent directly to a lawyer. It also contains a document that outlines an individual’s rights while recording the police in action.

Filming Police Brutality

Filming Police Brutality

The App is downloadable here through the New York Civil Liberties Union website.

The groups that are advocating the use of such Apps tend to be minority groups, who believe that they are treated differently from other members of society due to their race or religion, and hope that recording the police at work might help to address this issue. If we think back a few years to the Rodney King case in LA in 1991 we can see that video technology has held a place in these types of issues for some time. We should also remember that riots were triggered in which 53 people were killed when the police were acquitted and so this is not a technology without implications for all sides. If you watch the video of the beating though you can see why the acquittal caused so much anger.

UPDATE: I just want to clarify that 2 officers were later charged with civil rights violations related to the Rodney King case mentioned in the article and found guilty and imprisoned. Also readers should be aware that the use of these Apps to film the police may not be legal in certain states, a problem that I touched upon last week regarding radar tracking equipment in cars.

Also in New York the Sikh Coalition is making an App available called FlyRights. This App allows the user to file complaints about air travel discrimination in real time and directly to the correct authorities. If a user feels they have been profiled or are being searched because they are wearing religious dress such as a turban or veil they can report discrimination on the grounds of religion or race.

There are many other Apps like this, and supporters argue that they could become the base as a new civil rights movement, after all the phone is one of the few things that most people carry everywhere they go. A Swiss army knife for civil rights right there in your pocket for some, a dangerous tool for others, once more we are in a debatable position. In many states in the US it is illegal to film the police and action is taken against those who do, so an App that allows someone to do it without being noticed may be looked upon with suspicion.

Radar and Speed Camera Apps

20 years ago I worked above a garage in Manchester. The owner was a young man who liked fast cars, but in Britain the roads are monitored with cameras and speed traps making it easy to lose your license through the points deduction system.

My boy racer friend had a solution however, on the rear view mirror he had a radar detection system. These systems were illegal to use, but not to own, so although visible to a passing police officer there was little they could do about it.

20 years on the technology has improved. Now for 6 euros you can download Radardroid, it sits in your smartphone and informs you when you are getting close to a speed camera or radar. This App sends a visual and sonic signal to warn you, so you can slow down and avoid fines and potentially losing your license.

To think it used to be like this!

Modern technology means less places to hide

There are many systems available. Some like Radardroid are openly helping you to avoid abiding by the law, but others market themselves as driver help tools. They let you know when there is a traffic jam ahead, bad weather or a radar by describing them all as ‘risk zones’. These systems have even been endorsed by some European governments and car manufacturing companies are starting to put the technology directly into their cars.

One problem remains however, in some countries the use of this technology is prohibited. Germany and Switzerland enforce bans on such technology, something that was easy with older systems that could be spotted from outside the car. But what about if it sits within your phone. How can a sovereign state stop people driving on their territory with an App in their phone? Will they stop cars that are factory fitted with the technology from crossing their borders?

I doubt that enforcement will be possible, and this highlights just one of the problems of the management of a single market across different sovereign countries. Technology transcends geographic boundaries, as the internet buying of banned products has proved.

And this leads me to my final question, does this mean that people only abide by the law because they think that they might get into trouble if they don’t? What are the ethical implications of the marketing and endorsing of such products? If this process continues many laws will become obsolete as technology finds ways to avoid being caught.

In Italy you have to pay to use the motorways, so you get a ticket when you enter, that you present when you leave and pay. On some motorways they have introduced what they call a tutor. It is old school technology, the ticket has the time you enter stamped on it. When you leave the time is registered again. If you cover more distance than is possible while remaining within the speed limit you get a fine. A simple A to B calculation that has dramatically cut deaths on my local motorway.

If you are interested in reading more about ethics in technological innovation take a look at my work blog.

Data Storage Problems

This week the New York Times published a long article about the problem of data storage, and I would like to summarize some of their findings. The article is available here in Saturday’s technology section.

The article is an attack at what the author sees as wasteful use of resources in data storage centres. There are now hundreds of thousands of these huge centres spread throughout the world, and the problem is they use an incredible amount of electricity. The servers have to be kept cool and they have to have spare capacity so that we can download whatever we want whenever we want.

Inside a US data centre

Inside a US data centre

Worldwide these centres use about 30 billion watts of electricity, and that is about 30 nuclear power plants worth of power. A single data center uses about the same amount as a small town, and the main criticism is the nature of the usage.

In the US 2% of all electricity used goes to these data centers, but the vast majority of this resource is wasted. Typically many servers are left to run 24 a day but never or rarely used (more than half in this study), and the average machine in operation uses less than 10% of its capacity. Servers are left running obsolete programs or in ‘comatose’ because nobody wants to risk a mistake and turn them off.

All of this means that any data center might use 30 times as much electricity as is needed to carry out the functions it performs.

All of these centres also have to have a back up in case of power failure, and so are surrounded by diesel generators and stacks of batteries, and many have been found in breach of environmental regulations and fined. The article gives details but the companies are names that we all know and use.

If you read the more than 300 comments however you will discover that a lot of people do not agree with the findings as reported. Many technicians argue that the companies cited are investing huge amounts of money into making the storage of data more efficient, and are constructing wind farms and using solar power in an attempt to cut costs and emissions. The article has its agenda and exploits it fully, but the problem is real.

I personally believe that we are witnessing the results of a digital culture change. We no longer have to store data on our machines, we can store it in some mythical cloud out there in the cyber-universe. This makes us think that it somehow exists without the need for a hard drive, but this is not true. As a result we keep things that we do not need. I have 500 e mails in my inbox, with attachments, photos that I will never again look at and other useless things, and they are all in storage somewhere.

Technology advances, storage gets cheaper and uses less space, but the amount of data created is growing at an incredible rate. My question is, can we do anything about it? Are we not the ones who should take some responsibility and think about the consequences of our actions. We think about not using paper to print emails but we don’t think about not sending them!