In the absence of regulation, tech companies and law enforcement are left policing themselves

A panel on security and surveillance at the GeekWire Summit 2019 at the Hyatt Regency Seattle, Oct. 8, 2019. From left to right: GeekWire editor and moderator Monica Nickelsburg, Seattle Police Department Chief Carmen Best, Washington Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal and Axon president Luke Larson. (Photo by Dan DeLong for GeekWire)

As surveillance technology is rapidly advancing — including facial recognition and devices such as Amazon’s Ring doorbell cameras — the ability to regulate these tools is not keeping pace, agreed a panel of experts at today’s 2019 GeekWire Summit in Seattle.

That reality creates a tricky balancing act, leaving tech companies to police themselves and lawmakers trying to implement controls without overstepping their role.

“I don’t think it should ever be about how to stop technology and innovation,” said Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, who represents Washington’s 7th District. The issue, she said, is “how do we put in place the rules and limitations and regulations that will allow for those technologies to be used in the best possible way?”

Seattle Police Department Chief Carmen Best said that her organization is working to make sure it’s transparent in its use of technology and is moving cautiously. She meets regularly with the ACLU, for example, to discuss privacy and civil rights concerns.

“We want to make sure that whatever technology we’re using, that we’re not abusing it in any way,” Best said.

Technology companies including Axon, which makes Taser devices, has set up its own ethics advisory panel with tech experts, law enforcement and academic leaders to help it navigate the perils of deploying surveillance tools, said president Luke Larson.

Before incorporating surveillance capabilities into its products, the company has asked itself, is the technology “mature enough that it won’t have bias introduced?” Larson said.

When it came to facial recognition, Axon leaders decided that the answer was no. The company opted to “hit pause,” Larson said, and not incorporate those capabilities.

“Even if it’s perfect, what is the implication if we role this out in real time, to an officer on the street,” he said, “where they become judge, jury and executioner?”

So what’s the solution? The GeekWire Summit panel members agreed that better regulations and guidance from lawmakers was key, but slow in coming.

Jayapal said that Congress, so far, has only been able to push through smaller, Band-Aid amendments addressing the technology and its intersection with civil liberties.

“What we really need is a quick, big piece of regulation, and that is not easy to get across,” the lawmaker said. She’s hoping that within about two-years time some new, more comprehensive rules would be possible.

And while regulations and concern about surveillance in policing is certainly warranted, Best reminded the audience that this isn’t the only privacy matter that needs scrutiny.

“I would imagine that Google has a lot more information about you,” Best said, “than the Seattle Police Department ever will.”

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