Police and Data: Responsa

I would never have expected to receive responses to a dry-as-dust piece on police and data. The blog must have touched a sensitive button. Not so much on the big issue of data, data crime and surveillance, but on issues with which the reader could easily identify – such as controlling vehicle speeds on residential streets.

Some responses were matters of additional information. With respect to traffic calming methods rather than enforcement, I believed that I had provided an extensive list. The techniques I listed were just a drop in the bucket. I could have added the following measures to the list: speed humps (wider than bumps) and tables (wider still) as well as speed trays (bumps arranged like an inverted ice cube tray); mid-block barriers; raised crosswalks and intersections; cobblestone streets; circles, roundabouts, centre islands, chicanes (I had never heard the word before; they narrow a road at strategic places to slow traffic), chokers and neckdowns – chicanes at intersections; and, most interesting of all to me, illusory markings. It is worth writing a blog just to learn about the creativity of traffic engineers.

I was informed that in Norway and Britain, automated digital photo radar is used extensively. In Alberta, photo radar is used. However, without driver identification, unless an officer manning the radar can stop and identify the driver, only the owner of the vehicle can be held responsible for the fine. But without driver identification, no demerit points can be issued.  So why man the camera? I was also informed by another reader that reduction in speeds (say from 30 to 25 mph or 40 to 35 kph) actually reduces speeds to only 29 mph or 39 kph. Signs which show your speed do not work in decreasing that speed, but when accompanied by memes, that frown if you are speeding and smile if you go under the speed limit, do work. Another reader informed me of the opposite – that signs showing speeds without memes do indeed work. I did not do my research to ascertain which claim was correct. Does any reader know?

However, the greater the number of signs, evidently the less effective any of them are. Warning signs are evidently ineffective and, surprising to me, stop signs are counter-productive – drivers speed up to make up for lost time at the intersection. Four way stops also contribute to increased car pollution with every additional stop and go.

Of course, we could simply build the technology into a vehicle to prevent it from going over a posted speed limit. But in our world prioritizing individual rights, such a simple and inexpensive device belongs to a sci-fi world.

In the responses on a whole different level, I was chastised for being too lost in the clouds of philosophy and principles with little practical experience of the way cops behaved on the street. Cases of cops readily killing civilians were cited, most recently the case of the Sacramento police shooting and killing a young Black American in his grandmother’s backyard because they believed his cell phone was a gun pointed at them. Twenty shots were fired by the two police officers. One writer cited this as another case of American racism without noting that the police chief in Sacramento is Black. So was one of the two police officers doing the shooting.

Interestingly, the evidence for the shooting came from the body cameras on the police used for surveillance of police activity. Unfortunately, and questionably, the police afterwards turned off the audio and video recording by pressing mute when other officers arrived. This incident may have more to do with the readiness to use guns in the gun culture so central to America than with the deep-seated racism of America. Further, instead of police having as their priority protecting the safety and security of members of civil society and their property, the police adopt the values of a military culture where fear for their own safety and protecting their own security sets the priority for their responses.

I want to defend myself against the charge of innocence about life in the streets as I get lost in the clouds of abstract principles and philosophy. When I was a teenager, we lived a block away from a police station. We often heard the shrieks of those arrested as they were supposedly beaten by police. “Supposed” is a euphemism for lack of direct evidence through witnessing. However, when some of the police joined the crowd next door to peer at the small television screen, they would often boast about how they dealt out “justice’ to “criminals.” However, when I was indicted for a criminal offence as a young teenager (for scalping tickets) and was convicted, when I was arrested, I was treated fairly and with respect.

This was not true of two of my sons much later. One was arrested and handcuffed in his own home for evidently going through a stop sign three blocks from his home and failing to stop when signalled to do so by a police car following him which he had failed to notice. Another was arrested at the age of 13 or 14, cuffed and taken upstairs for hours of interrogation when we brought him into the police station because another youth had named him as the perpetrator of an assault and robbery of Halloween candies. The fact that my son was six inches taller than the description provided to the police by the accuser, the fact that he had five witnesses to testify that he was elsewhere on Halloween night nowhere near the alleged offence, seemed of no consequence as the detectives seemed committed to getting him to confess and undertook no investigation. After eight months, three appearances in court and huge legal bills, the charges were withdrawn.

Most recently, when I was assaulted physically in my own home, the police were very considerate and patient and went out of their way to be helpful, but they did advise that I not press charges, for the assailant claimed that I had attacked him. They would have to charge us both if I insisted on pressing charges. Better, they suggested, to let it drop, especially since my alleged assailant would likely just get off with his wrist slapped.

I am well aware that police are not paragons of virtue or the best expressions of the principles they are purportedly committed to uphold. But my issue was the theory of policing and its functioning in a society of large data, data crime on a large scale, and taking place in an increasingly surveillance culture. Nor am I unaware of the use of surveillance in the days pre-dating the collection of large scale data.

When I was a student at the University of Toronto and a leader in the nuclear disarmament movement, one of my philosophy professors asked me to come to his office. In that meeting he told me that he had been asked to come to speak to the RCMP. As it turned out, they wanted to question him about me.

On the desk of the detective was a file about 4” thick with material on my activities. He told them nothing because he knew nothing. But he was kindly and wanted to warn me.

I was not surprised. At our demonstrations, there was always a plain-clothed police officer – so evident, he might as well have worn a uniform – who, while participating in or observing the demonstration, took notes and pictures. I always made a point of welcoming him and asking him if I could do anything to help or involve him. After all, no one else was interested in recording my life for posterity. Later on, when the RCMP was running amuck to stop the Quebec separatists, they also torched our research institute on Huron Street, but only after collecting the files and sending them to the then editor of the Sun newspaper.

I could go on with other stories. I merely want to indicate that I am far from innocent of what takes place on the ground. I do not know the extent of the failure of police to uphold the principle of protecting and serving civil society, but I do recognize the discrepancy between practice and principles. The fact that practices fail to live up to principles is not a reason for cynicism or for failing to attempt to articulate what the role and principles of policing should be in the new large data world of algorithms and wide-scale electronic surveillance. Personal untoward experiences should not shade one’s eyes to the fact that the police, and other civil service policing establishments, are extremely underfunded and undertrained to combat the rapidly increasing criminality in this sphere, a criminality that even threatens the fundamentals of our democratic institutions.

Corruption of police on both the local level and on a national level in the U.S. is pervasive. Readers of my blog know that I winter in San Pancho in Mexico. It is an area that is very safe and up until two years ago did not even have a police force. However, many areas of Mexico are unsafe; the numbers of killings recorded are more similar to war zones like Iraq and Syria. Recently, two police officers received 25-year prison sentences for killing newspaper owner Moisés Sánchez in Veracruz, Mexico, in 2015. The local mayor – who allegedly ordered the murder – is a fugitive. Six police officers, believed widely to be part of a drug gang under the control of the mayor, have not been prosecuted even though the entire police force (36 officers) of Medellín de Bravo were questioned. Perhaps, the six were not charged because of the common conspiracy of silence practiced among members of the police.

However, I believe the situation is 25% as dangerous in the U.S., yet we rarely consider not travelling to the U.S. because of violence. In Mexico in 2017, almost 30,000 people were murdered by guns and other means in a population of 130 million at a rate of about 23 for each 100,000 in population. The U.S. total of homicides by guns alone was about 35,000 of a population of 326 million or just over 10 per 100,000 population. However, over half were self inflicted suicides. On the other hand, if non-gun violence is included, the total of violent deaths rises to almost 41,000, and the rate of killings is about 5 per 100,000. Compare that to Canada with just over 600 violent murders for a population of 37 million. Given the American experience, we could expect over 4,000. If Mexico has a violent death rate of almost 5 times that of the U.S., the U.S. has a violent death rate of over 7 times that of the peaceable kingdom to the north.

Mexico has its violent gangs and drug cartels concentrated in specific areas; the actual rate of violence in those high-risk areas is much higher. On the other hand, gun violence in the U.S. is far less unevenly distributed. More significantly, the rate of violence in the U.S. is directly correlated with its gun culture far more than the degree of criminality. Take the example of the billionaire, Robert Mercer, the backer of Breitbart News, heavy contributor to the Trump presidential campaign and the financier behind Cambridge Analytica. He is not only the owner of gun companies (Center Firearms and PTR Industries in South Carolina), but is himself a voluntary police officer for at least six days a year in the Town of Lake Arthur with a population of only 433. Such a position allows him to carry a concealed weapon virtually anywhere in the U.S. because a Congressional law passed in the Bush junior administration in 2004, the Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act, allows police to carry concealed weapons anywhere in the U.S without any need to acquire a local license. In the U.S., as discussed in previous blogs, any civilian can shoot another person if they have a reasonable belief that his or her life was at risk.

Neither the police in America nor American civil society endorse the principle that police enforcement is directed at serving and protecting civil society. Quite the reverse; in many areas the doctrine is that police and civilian self-protection are the priorities. Given this focus, it is unlikely that police agencies will be funded or encouraged to combat data crimes. The privacy of individuals and the right to self-protection takes precedence. The public is also jaundiced against the police in many western and eastern seaboard states just when the internet, once associated with anonymity, is now associated with surveillance, and distrust of that surveillance. Putting the police in charge of supervising that surveillance appears to many a risk that they are not willing to take to fund police to protect and to serve.

The principles governing police activity are actually very simple. Police enforcement, though administered by governments, exists to serve and protect civil society. To the extent that police are turned into government enforcers, or to the extent they are viewed as militant members of an individualist Wild West, in neither case can they serve their primary function. That primary function requires educating police in this ethos, and funding and equipping and training them to fight the most extensive and threatening criminality now extant, that of large scale data crimes.

With the help of Alex Zisman


With the help of Alex Zisman


Next: Data and Health


Birds of a Feather

Yesterday, we went out to dinner with two friends. They had been out that day with a guide trekking through the jungle looking at the flora and fauna. I had been invited to go along, but I declined. In my terrible black humour, I said that I was allergic to getting too close to nature. That, of course, was not the real reason. After all, I had walked up, not once, but twice – not accurate, one of those times I walked down – through the jungle on the side of a mountain.

I think the real reason is that, whereas others see the beauty and bounty of nature, ever since I was educated by one of my sons about the environment, I see what is missing. In my walks through the jungle, I did not see a single bird. They did, but it was a flower, a bird of paradise. They showed me the picture they had taken. When I asked whether there were fewer birds here than when they first came to San Pancho, they indicated that the reverse was true. There seemed to them to be more.

I was sceptical. When I woke up this morning, I looked up on the internet to find whether the bird population in Nayarit, Mexico was declining or rising. I could not find an answer. There were too many sites advertising the wonders of bird watching in this area. The San Pancho Bird Observatory conducts tours for birders. However, the site also briefly mentioned another objective – to protect the population of birds, both in types and quantity. They needed protection. They needed sanctuaries. I suspect, like elsewhere, one can over a period witness the tragedy of the few and the thinning of nature. After all, I have not seen a single butterfly since I have been here and this is the area where butterflies from Canada winter.

It is not as if I had not seen many birds. You only have to walk along the beach to see egrets and ducks, herons, gulls and ibises – especially near the estuary at the south end of the long beach. But I do not have to walk along the beach to see birds. The prehistorical-looking chachalacas shriek and scream just as the sun rises every morning as they fly around playing follow the leader. Watching black hawks soar and rise on the updrafts without a flap of their wings is to truly watch grace in motion. I have also seen what look like turkey vultures and even one falcon. If I was a birdwatcher, I surely would be able to distinguish the various types of sparrows, orioles, warblers – I recognize them from their songs – finches and rushes, terns and wrens that perch on the edge of the swimming pool, taking a swig of water and resting before flying off.

I did recognize several of the birds. One was a Killdeer. I know that bird because I once reviewed a play by the Canadian poet, E.J. Pratt, called after that bird. It has two alternating white and black bands around its neck and a white patch above its very streamlined beak Another bird that returned to the edge of the pool several times was small and yellow with black and white almost striated wings and a very short and stubby beak. Another much larger bird had similar wings, but a red top and golden cheeks. I even once saw a green parrot – and one woodpecker, several times. It was red at the top and had a banded neck.

However, instead of taking great joy in the bounty of nature that is there, I mourn the genocide of birds and animals by the human species. And I believe I know the deep rather than immediate cause. It has to do partially with the university as an institution about which I have been writing.

From feedback that I have received, I clearly have not been clear enough. I will retrace my steps, depicting the university as a Sanctuary of Truth and then its transition to the Sanctuary of Method that I referred to in my last blog and then the transformation of that type of university into a Social Service Station. Finally, I will describe the type of university that is currently emerging, the university as a consumer’s supermarket.

The mediaeval university went into serious decline with the onset of modernity during the Reformation and the Enlightenment. In the final stages of its estimable evolution in that period, what had become a home for aristocrats to play and sew their wild oats was taken over by the court in its battle with the country to ensure that noblemen acquired modern technical skills in contrast to the general disdain of the landed aristocracy for higher learning. Ranks were distributed based on one’s educational achievement. However, what was being measured was not the acquisition of knowledge or critical skills, but the ethos and ability to conduct oneself according to the standards of the court. In contrast, the landed aristocracy, rooted in one form of pietism, defended their faith as a source of their countervailing values.

Though Eric Hobsbawm and Hugh Trevor-Roper differed in their explanations for the crisis that afflicted the seventeenth century and to some degree its characterization, both concurred that the seventeen-hundreds were years marked by unprecedented turmoil. There has been a general agreement that during that mini-ice age and a severe decline in population levels, societies were riven with shifts in the political order and the well-being of society. A central component was, in my mind, a crisis of faith and it pervaded the whole world in that early expression of globalization. The English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 brought William of Orange into the possession of the British crown. The Thirty Years’ War, the revolts against the Spanish Crown from Holland to Naples, the collapse of the Ming Dynasty and of the Shogun in Japan – one can go on and on to document the crisis of the seventeenth century.

And Mexico played a central role as gold, but especially silver, from this area flooded the world economy bringing about significant inflation. In this fraught atmosphere, society was pulled apart. A powerful and centralizing bureaucracy under the crown fought a locally-focused and land-based aristocracy rooted in deep-seated religious beliefs. The university was caught up as an instrument and representative of the battle between what has been called Crown and Country. The University of Königsberg in East Prussia, founded in the middle of the sixteenth century, was no exception. One reader sent me a message about Mark Twain’s portrait of the University of Heidelberg where the children of aristocrats spent their time duelling and frittering away parental wealth as they sought degrees guaranteeing them a place in the new state bureaucracies. It was just a typical example of the malaise that overhung universities.

As this tension moved into the eighteenth century, great scholars began to appear in the interstices of these decrepit institutions, at least decrepit from the perspective of any dedication to the preservation, creation and transmission of knowledge through the education of students. Immanuel Kant was born in 1724 in that city as a child of artisans (harness makers) rather than of the landed aristocracy. His family’s pietism celebrated religious emotion and the divine authority of the Lutheran Church. But Kant, in spite of his enormous regard for his parents, was influenced by the Scottish Enlightenment and Jean-Jacques Rousseau in France. He struggled and wrote, earned money as a tutor and lectured students for pay until he finally received an appointment at the University of Königsberg. Only then did he articulate his revolutionary philosophical principles in the 1780s that breached the divide between rationalism and empiricism, science and morality, the inner world of thought and the outer world of experience.

Humans achieved certainty because there were laws such as causation etched in our brains that were necessary conditions of any knowledge. In ethics, imperatives were also there as preconditions of any morality whatsoever. And beneath the whole edifice was the autonomous thinking self that gave us both our freedom to think and act. But, as we shall see in my next blog, no sooner had a new basis for certainty been forged as a substitute for faith than it all fell apart and the Sanctuary of Truth evolved into the Sanctuary of Method initially at the beginning of the nineteenth century at the University of Berlin.

However, I am getting ahead of myself. At the end of the eighteenth century, it was very widely believed that Kant had resurrected and saved the idea of final causes, of a teleology of reason that gave the world a purpose. But there was an inherent contradiction. As Kant opted for reason in place of emotional piety, as he chose the autonomy of thought over the dependency on grace, he tried to preserve a lofty place for his parents in the noumenal world of faith that lay beyond sensibility and reason as he inherited and imbibed their artisan attention to hard work, discipline and rigid order. He had linked the sentimental thinking of the Scottish philosophers – David Hume and Adam Smith – with Newtonian science and Leibnizian mathematics. But he did so by surrendering and submitting to the authority of the Crown and relegated the Country to a backwater of faith which he respected and put on a pedestal. Otherwise, country was ignored. His justification: faith was beyond reason and used reason to demarcate that sacred space and leave it alone.

So whence the corruption? Aristocrats may now have attended such a university to earn a status that allowed them to serve the state rather than to pursue and advance knowledge, but the core of the university, though only a core, had been resurrected as a place for the pursuit of truth. To make a long story very short, I will jump to the 1930s and 1940s when the Sanctuary of Method was leaving behind the Sanctuary of Truth as a respected and admired backwater, but no longer the centre for the advancement of knowledge. I jump to Oxford and Cambridge and the breeding of spies who betrayed rather than served the crown. I refer to the well-known story of Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess, of Kim Philby and Donald Maclean.

They were all scions of the aristocracy, sometimes the lower aristocracy, but the aristocracy nonetheless. Born into privilege, they were children of the Country being trained in Cambridge to serve the Crown. They had been raised at Eton with a grand sense of entitlement and of hierarchy, perhaps even more rigid, though not as explicitly depicted as in Prussia. That made it even more powerful in being understood rather than articulated, thereby instilling a deeper sense of disappointment if one failed to grab the brass ring of status rather than of money.

But why through an adherence to communism and, in particular, Stalin’s Russia? Because communism did not represent for them any identity with the working class, but resentment and revenge on the aristocracy in which they did not achieve the highest honours and recognition to which they felt was their due. Brilliance, wit, an ability to mimic the foibles and follies of one’s class, were all prerequisites. But insufficient. And if one failed, one was left with a set of tools with possibly no real outlet.

John Maynard Keynes in his intellectual brilliance and as a member of the Apostles – not quite the highest order in the hierarchy – or E. M. Forster, who would write Passage to India, one of the greatest novels of English literature, may have both belonged to the secret fellowship of Apostles that revered cleverness and wit, idiosyncratic rituals and a special jargon, but their intelligence and creativity offered them a positive outlet for their class resentment. Guy Burgess and Walter Maclean, Anthony Blunt and Kim Philby all chose to become moles rather than attempt to soar as birds to the heights to which they believed they were destined.

They betrayed a decaying empire to serve a rising one, not the working class, but a fresh – and ruthless new imperial order. They belonged to the swamp of London in service to Moscow. Instead of free thought they chose a closed system so they could express themselves in actions untrammeled by the norms of their society. They were rebels with a cause, but the cause was driven by the psychology of resentment rather than any concern for the suffering and the deprived. Further, the crisis of both capitalism and liberalism as it faced the rise of fascism offered a ready excuse. They could ostensibly be high-minded even if they failed to achieve the highest status.

They had the perfect cover. They belonged, even as in their idiosyncratic beliefs and decadent behaviour merely served to reassure their acceptance as members in a privileged order. There were no real security clearances. They were all trusted as “good old boys”. They had been brought up to be irresponsible and they would prove that they had absorbed those values to the nth degree. Devoted to opulence rather than frugality, to cynicism rather than faith, to hypocrisy rather than a reverence for the truth, and to superficial display rather than deep thought, they had become members of a higher order than even the Apostles, an even more secret order.

As birds of a feather, one by one they went into exile together in that idyllic imaginary centre of a utopian higher order. The secret and exclusive order of M15 and M16 were merely waystations. Defensive snobbery and anxiety about slipping into the bourgeoisie combined to propel them to risk their own turf for a different hierarchy of privilege and crony network into which not one of them was really accepted as they lived out their lives in exile as ex-pats in Moscow.

Let me end by returning to the eighteenth century and the glory of the Sanctuary of Truth in a period when birds did not have to be protected by living in sanctuaries. Carl Linnaeus, the famous eighteenth century Swedish botanist and zoologist, was educated and ended up lecturing at the University of Uppsala in Sweden. He was one of the greatest scientists of the century famed for his binomial nomenclature for naming organisms as he became the godfather of modern biology. He had already done for nature what Kant would accomplish for consciousness. But both were still rooted in an ahistorical conviction about both nature and the mind which was only set aside when the classifications and characterizations of both of these very original thinkers were reconfigured as part of a developmental and historically emergent system where classes and rules became convenient conventions for understanding, grasping and using the external world.

Instead of a fixed hierarchy of the social world, Linnaeus developed the concept of a nested hierarchy of kingdoms (later also phyla), classes, orders (later also families), genera, species and taxa (varieties in botany and subspecies in zoology). These were not hierarchies of power and coercion or of formal authority, but simply ways of comprehending the world. Instead of class being used to establish hierarchies, hierarchies were used to establish a method of classification. Similarities counted more than differences, observations counted rather than prejudices.

Further, as in Cambridge, Linnaeus had his Apostles at Uppsala, but they shared a kinship with the apostles who surrounded Jesus rather than those who gathered together in Cambridge. There were seventeen rather than twelve. Many of them sacrificed their lives as they went on dangerous expeditions around the world to gather specimens of plants, animals and minerals. There would have been no Darwin without an earlier Linnaeus and the methods he instilled in his charges for preserving and classifying plants and animals.

When my friends went on their walk in the jungle yesterday, they were paying homage to Linnaeus and the best that the Sanctuary of Truth had to offer even though the university at that time played a critical role between competing forces in society and even though most students attended to obtain, not knowledge, but credentials to enter into unnatural hierarchies.

To be continued.