The Week in Tech: Companies Make Their Pitch to the Police

Each week, we review the week’s news, offering analysis about the most important developments in the tech industry.

Hello, Adam Satariano here. I cover technology in Europe for The New York Times.

This past week, as part of some research I have been doing about government uses of technology, I went to Berlin to attend the European Police Congress, an annual conference for law enforcement agencies.

When the conference started more than 20 years ago, the discussion was mainly about training techniques and other cop-on-the-beat-type work, said Uwe Proll, the main organizer. The companies there were predominantly selling guns, safety gear, radios and other equipment.

But as in every other industry, the conversation is now dominated by technology. At the panels I attended, and in conversations I had with attendees, the central topics were how to take advantage of artificial intelligence, data analytics, facial recognition and other emerging technologies.

Many representatives from the tech industry were on hand. A common theme was that police departments risk giving criminals an edge if they don’t buy the latest technology. “They want it, they need it,” said Ozan Yilmaz, a project manager for Ava, a data-analytics firm whose customers include police departments in Los Angeles and London.

Microsoft demonstrated its image recognition technology. Samsung displayed a range of handsets, including a specially designed Galaxy phone for police officers. IBM was pitching artificial intelligence. Oracle showed how its technology would help with immigration enforcement, with gang and drug investigations, and in prisons.

Cognitec, a German facial recognition company, showed me how its technology can follow people as they move around an airport or public space. The sales rep told me that demand for its software from law enforcement had never been higher.

Nearby was a booth for NSO Group, the firm accused of making spy software that has been used against journalists and government dissidents. “Find anyone, anywhere,” read its slogan. The marketing manager at the booth refused to speak with me.

While companies clearly see a business opportunity in law enforcement, representatives from police departments said they were wrestling with the ethical traps of using the latest technology.

Many said clearer laws were needed to outline which systems were acceptable, particularly with emerging technologies like facial recognition and artificial intelligence. Otherwise, law enforcement authorities will be left making policies on their own, as London’s police department did last month when it announced it will use real-time facial recognition.

In the years ahead, many of the most important debates about technology will be about how governments are adopting these new systems and what impact they are having.

Cade Metz and I just published an article about how people in the United States and Europe are being affected by the government use of algorithms to make decisions in criminal justice, social welfare and children services.

In Bristol, a city I visited on the west coast of England, an algorithm is being used to flag youths who may be at risk of becoming involved in crime. After years of budget cuts, officials there see it as a way to make up for lost human resources.

In Philadelphia, Cade met with a man whose probation had largely been dictated by an algorithm. The man didn’t know the software was playing such a decisive role in his life until Cade told him.

  • The Iowa caucuses meltdown taught us an important (and arguably self-evident) lesson about tech. Kevin Roose explained that trying out new technology for targeting voters and campaign organizing was all well and good. But when it comes to the nuts and bolts of counting votes, the more analog the better.

  • The app at the center of the problems in Iowa was part of an effort by Democrats to narrow the lead Republicans have built up over the past several years in using digital technology. The faulty app, my colleagues reported, was “the work of a little-known company called Shadow Inc. that was founded by veterans of Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful presidential campaign, and whose previous work was marked by a string of failures, including a near bankruptcy.”

  • Several tech companies reported earnings. The results showed that the gap between the largest tech companies and everybody else is widening, according to an analysis by Daisuke Wakabayashi and Matt Phillips.

  • Perhaps my favorite story of the week was a delightful piece by Steve Lohr about Anguilla, a tiny British territory in the Caribbean, that is cashing in on its ownership of the internet domain for “.ai.”

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