Tech And Policing Amidst Pandemic And Protests
In America, technology has always been deployed to subject Black people to intense surveillance and violence from the state as well as broader society.
As I write this, America is experiencing its largest period of social unrest since 1968. If the same events were happening in Africa or Latin America, the U.S. media would call it a revolution that, possibly, warranted American military intervention. Now, many Americans are experiencing, for the first time, a reality that Black people in this country have been living with since 1619: white supremacist terrorism supported by technology. The current uprisings, while widespread and multi-racial, are simply the most recent iteration in a long history of Black resistance against such violence. As police respond to peaceful demonstrations with even more force, brutality and oppression, now seems like a perfect time to discuss technology and policing.
As a newly minted Black MBA, I was excited for life post-business school and ready to implement new lessons, strategies and skills. However, in this moment of pandemic and protests, I realized that my studies and personal history have given me a unique perspective. At Haas, I studied the effects of emerging technologies on marginalized populations in urban environments and, as a Black man, I have personally experienced the deployment of these technologies, specifically through policing. This combination seems even more relevant given widespread efforts to deploy technology in response to the pandemic as well as recent announcements from IBM and Amazon in light of police behavior during the protests. Just last year, concerns about the same technology were falling on “deaf ears.”
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, public health officials have been relying on contact tracing to help contain its spread. Traditionally, this method requires intensive human effort and involvement. When someone tests positive, public health investigators get in touch with them, learn about everyone they’ve been in contact with, and then manually track down and notify all those contacts. However, there is currently a global effort led by public health authorities, universities, NGOs and governments to make the process more “efficient.” After announcing a partnership to get in on the action, Apple and Google assured users that privacy and security would be prioritized via a decentralized design. However, scientists and privacy/civil rights advocates have already raised alarms about the development of other more centralized contact tracing technologies, like the German-led Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT) initiative. Other privacy advocates suggested that even the Apple/Google system could be used by outside parties, like the U.S. government, to de-anonymize the data.
The two most problematic technologies I studied are now being discussed as key tools for contact tracing and being supercharged by the pandemic: facial recognition and predictive algorithms. Coincidently, these technologies are also highly culpable in America’s prison industrial complex. As the popular press was discussing the merits of these technologies, I was studying their disturbing track record with marginalized communities. Here in the U.S., while some states have passed legislation to ban/limit the use of facial recognition software by police, there are still many places where the practice continues. Predictive algorithms are also used as risk assessment tools for bail sentencing in many states. Similarly, in the U.K., MPs have raised concerns about the high error rate of facial recognition software being deployed by the Metropolitan Police Department. In both the U.K. and U.S., deployed facial recognition software and algorithms have been proven to have gender and racial bias. While many are appropriately focused on the intense and indiscriminate state violence and abuse currently being meted out by police and military, we cannot forget about the technology and systems that support these practices. This is especially true since these new tools often prove hard to dismantle.
Once implemented, new technologies and powers are unlikely to be rolled back. Instead, they are likely to become permanent and be expanded, even after the protests and pandemic have subsided. Edward Snowden examines this very point in a recent interview through 9/11’s aftermath. I was in the eighth grade when my teacher hurriedly switched on the news and I watched with the rest of my class as the 2nd plane hit the World Trade Center on live TV. In the aftermath, as we were gripped by a climate of fear, the legal and political environment changed dramatically. The Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) passed on September 14, approximately 72 hours later, and the Patriot Act passed on October 25, just six weeks later. The AUMF allowed the Bush administration to use military force, with unilateral discretion, against anyone deemed responsible for the 9/11 attacks. The Patriot Act, on the other hand, gave the U.S. government radical new surveillance and detention powers. In both situations, there was little resistance.
The AUMF passed unanimously in the Senate and by a 420-1 vote in the House. Rep. Barbara Lee, CA (D), as the lone vote, warned that the AUMF would lead to endless war. Advocates insisted the AUMF would be temporary and a sunset provision was even put into the act. However, 20 years later, it has yet to expire, still passes with overwhelming majorities and has expanded radically beyond its original interpretation. The Patriot Act passed with a 98-1 vote in the Senate. Sen. Russ Feingold, WI (D), as the lone vote, argued the act vested excessive surveillance and detention powers in the U.S. government. Parts of the act have been reauthorized repeatedly by congress through multiple administrations. Rep. Lee and Sen. Feingold were right to raise alarms but, at the time, fear and bias completely clouded our collective judgement. As a reward for her courage, Rep. Lee received a tidal wave of credible death threats.
The current pandemic has created a climate of fear similar to 9/11’s aftermath but with a far larger human toll. In less than three months, COVID-19 killed more Americans than the Vietnam War. As uprisings continued across the country, cases in the U.S. surpassed 2 million. However, we can respond to this pandemic, and wider moment, by challenging old orthodoxies and thinking of radically new systems. The choice between mass surveillance and uncontrolled spread of the virus is as false as the choice between defunding the police and complete anarchy. The threat of getting the technology wrong is also very real. In fact, assessing the bluetooth-powered contact tracing technology deployed by the Indian government, the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) warned that the app is a “privacy minefield” that could become a permanent surveillance tool even after the pandemic recedes. In the U.S., we already know that our legal and political systems are not prepared to regulate algorithms so we need to be very careful not to go down a similar path. America’s unique history, culture and systems have created a fertile environment for both the uprisings and the pandemic’s devastation. Our solutions will need to be just as unique. While white supremacist violence powered by technology may be troubling for many Americans, it will disproportionately be aimed at and affect Black people.
In America, technology has always been deployed to subject Black people to intense surveillance and violence from the state as well as broader society. In this podcast, writer and professor, Dr. Simone Browne, tracks these practices through enslavement, the creation of the Book of Negroes, a 19th century New York law that required Black, mixed and Native people walking without a white person to carry a candle or lantern, and the modern use of high-intensity police flood lights. The Book of Negroes used extensive personal identifying data to track Black people traveling outside of the U.S. and was the first large scale document of Black presence in America. As Dr. Browne states, “monitoring Black people has always been a project of American empire.” This dynamic may be most visible within American policing and the larger prison industrial complex. Here, here and here, you can learn how our current system of policing developed directly from the slave patrols that once roamed the country. However, it is also important to note that even individual white citizens were encouraged, permitted and, indeed, required to take part in these systems of surveillance and violence. This is one explanation for the “Karen” phenomenon.
I’m deeply invested in our country fixing this and am driven by a life that has been continuously touched and shaped by white supremacist terrorism and violence. My mom is from Tennessee, the same state where the Klu Klux Klan was founded. When she graduated from high school as valedictorian, the Klan repeatedly called her school, threatening to kill her if they dared honor her achievement. They even burned a cross on the school’s new field a week before the ceremony. As a result, my mother and her classmates graduated in the school’s gym because they could not guarantee her safety. Klan membership was like an open secret in my mother’s town and this experience was a main driver for her to raise me in D.C. This wasn’t an isolated incident or the work of a few bad apples either. Tennessee was one of the 12 “most active lynching states in America.” In fact, within that group, Tennessee was one of eight states that contained “the  counties with the highest rates of lynchings.” Furthermore, these lynchings were not private, but were “very often public events attended by hundreds of people and meant to send a clear message.” When journalist and activist, Ida B. Wells was fighting lynching, she fled Memphis as her newspaper office, which she co-owned, was burned down and her co-workers were run out of town. The threats Black people face doing this work have always been real.
Even the most basic understanding of U.S. history and culture would require one to know Mary Turner’s story, understand her murderers went home, raised children, and continued to live and work in their community — and that they were never held accountable by local, state or federal authorities. One would also need to understand that Turner’s story was anything but rare and has been repeated endlessly throughout time and space within this country’s borders. Instead, Black people are met with incredulity and suspicion whenever we claim that any aspect of this reality exists. Indeed, even in 2020, we are forced to watch Black people be lynched as police tell us they are suicides. I’m not sure we have words in the English language to describe that type of intergenerational gaslighting or what it must do to a group of people over hundreds of years.
At this point, I’m compelled to mention that the fight against white supremacist terrorism and violence has always been led and shaped by Black women. From Harriet Tubman to Wells to Angela Davis to U.S. Rep. Lee to Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi in the U.S. alone. Black women also understand that the U.S. military regularly deploys this violence abroad, so the fight against white supremacist terrorism exists everywhere.
They also use technology in their resistance. We must never forget that it was the tenacity, focus and courage of Darnella Frazier, a high school junior, that helped spark this current moment. We also cannot forget that, for possibly making the most important documentary in a generation, Frazier has been rewarded with accusations of clout-chasing and not doing enough to prevent Floyd’s murder. She will also most likely need for therapy for the rest of her life. My mother stood firmly in this tradition when she defiantly walked across the stage in May, 1977, even though she had finished her coursework the previous winter and was already taking classes at Vanderbilt University. So yes, even before I was born, white supremacist terrorism and violence was shaping my life and my mother was displaying excellence and resistance. I will follow in her footsteps for the rest of my life.
As a proud D.C. native, I was relatively lucky. I grew up in a community of strong, successful, politically-aware Black people with strong ties to the history of the city. Seeing these diverse expressions of Blackness gave me a strong sense of belonging. I also developed deep pride in my people, not just because of our resistance, but also in the way we create, remix, achieve and break down barriers, not just for ourselves but for others. Yet, while I have always been a proud African American, descended from those that built this country, I have never actually felt like an American citizen.
Supported by my parents and a strong community in D.C., I did everything society asked of me. I earned a spot at one of the most prestigious high schools in the country, then an Ivy League university, and then a top 10 business school. My performance at the latter earned one of four Defining Leadership Principle awards, a community service award, and a feature in Poets&Quants' 2020 Best & Brightest issue. I even secured a dream job with a top consulting firm. Yet, white supremacist terrorism still found me and it was aided by technology.
I was still in middle school when the cops followed my friends and I during a neighborhood bike ride. After blinding us with their high-intensity floodlights, they drove away with no explanation. I watched my father experience several driving-while-Black incidents before it was my turn at 17. A cop pulled me over while my best friend was riding shotgun and my mother was in the back seat. His tone changed drastically when he realized my mother was in the car and gave me a ticket for a small crack in my driver’s license. The charge was destruction of government property and my mother had to take time off work to go to the courthouse and get it dismissed. In college, after a close friend and mentor was assaulted by the cops, we organized, protested and demanded reform from the administration. Still, little has changed.
Despite my achievements, like any other Black person in this country, I could still be murdered by a cop or civilian, with near impunity, simply for the color of my skin. I also know that after my murder, police infrastructure would cover it up with the medical examiner’s help, the media would dig up every questionable thing I have ever done and, in spite of the best efforts of my family and friends, those responsible probably wouldn’t be convicted, let alone face justice. This is the brutal reality Black people have lived with in America since before its founding.
Thankfully, there are researchers and scientists working to mitigate the adverse effects of facial recognition and algorithms while suggesting better implementation methods. Joy Buolamwini’s facial recognition research, in particular, is groundbreaking within the industry. She has shown how an intersectional approach, utilizing a racial/social justice context, can be applied to the R&D process for facial recognition software. Using the intersection of gender presentation and skin type, Buolamwini greatly diversified her benchmarking tool creating a more representative sample with higher overall accuracy rates. She even lays out clear guidelines for creating more equitable and inclusive systems moving forward. Meanwhile, in her book, Cathy O’Neil presents the clear checklist of opacity, scale and damage designed specifically for analyzing the most harmful algorithms. She also stresses the importance of human judgement and intervention.
However, these are just the first steps. While Buolamwini created a truly progressive method for interrogating and developing facial recognition software to create more equitable and inclusive outcomes, the overall incentives for private industry have not changed. Furthermore, O’Neil’s suggestion of simply changing the “goal” of algorithms with adverse effects on marginalized populations shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how institutionalized racism and white supremacy operate in America. Using O’Neil’s logic, algorithmic recidivism rates could be used to channel more support (job training, counseling, etc.) to individuals at higher risk instead of penalizing them. Unfortunately, this misses the goal of America’s prison industrial complex. There is far more evidence to suggest that this system exists solely to politically and economically exploit marginalized populations rather than increase public safety or provide rehabilitation. In this current moment, the evidence continues to pile up.
This moment of pandemic and protests could have profound implications moving forward. In regards to COVID-19, some of these changes may be permanent. In regards to white supremacist violence, time will tell. However, before that happens, we need to ask ourselves hard questions about technologies and systems that have rarely been challenged. Before COVID-19, there was already ample evidence for the risk that pandemics present now and in the future. Furthermore, there have always been legitimate reasons to critically rethink our system of policing and so-called public safety. However, the cycle of police violence, protests and reforms have been repeated in this country for decades to no avail. Similarly, in his recent Atlantic article, author and professor, Ibram X. Kendi, examines the disparate racial impact of COVID-19 within its appropriate historical context via comparisons to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. These problems have always been with us.
For this moment to create lasting change, all Americans must understand and acknowledge the fact that our structures of public safety, health, and everything else are inherently racist. Indeed, there is no language in America for crime or criminality that does not explicitly or implicitly rely on anti-Blackness. So, in order to build something new, those with the most privilege will have to give something up. White and non-Black POC Americans need to be honest about themselves and their communities while understanding that all non-Black communities benefit from anti-Blackness. If you consider yourself an ally, work to be an accomplice and know the difference. In this respect, Hasan Minaj has set a gold standard for the South Asian community. There is no way to maintain your privilege and comfort while also improving the lives of Black people. If we are ever to be treated as full citizens of this country, then white people, in particular, can no longer weaponize their whiteness.
While I have spent most of my life engaged in racial and social justice work, I am not optimistic. Black people and our accomplices have protested peacefully, violently, quietly and loudly with no real change to the systemic structures that continue to oppress us. As I write this, the most openly racist president of the modern era is planning a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Juneteenth. His message couldn’t be any clearer if he were yelling it in my face. Meanwhile, the Democratic presidential nominee is continuing to alienate Black people, refusing to defund the police, and thinks cops should be trained to shoot people in the legs instead of the chest. So, at worst, we get an empowered and duly elected executive who is openly racist, sexist, narcissistic, fascistic and authoritarian, and, at best, we get to watch another wealthy, neoliberal, white man fail up.
Meanwhile, the cops that murdered Breonna Taylor released an incident report stating she suffered “no injuries” despite shooting her more than 8 times and, as is always the plight of people at the intersection of multiple identities, nobody is even talking about the murder of Black trans women. Still, Black women are resisting and Beyonce sent a letter to the Kentucky Attorney General demanding justice for Taylor while thousands just marched for Black trans lives.
So, I will continue to hope for a better future while also fighting and speaking out against white supremacist structures and systems wherever they exist. The minimum I would ask of my fellow Americans is to understand the centrality of white supremacist terrorism and violence to American society, structures and systems. True justice, however, would require some measure of self-sacrifice but, if our past is any indication, I won’t be holding my breath. Regardless, I hope all of us finally understand that until there is justice, there will be no peace.
Defund the Police.
Abolish the Prison Industrial Complex.
Black Lives Matter.