Magic Guilt-O-Meters

An article in Slate puts an interesting and scary angle on the devices police and prosecutors rely on to help them prove guilt. The computer code in those devices is, for the most part, locked away behind confidentiality agreements or kept as trade secrets as the intellectual property of the company that makes the device.

I’ve talked about this before in reference to the cops’ secrecy in using Stingray cell-tracking devices. As pointed out in the Slate article, secret computer code lets companies show the “answer” without showing their work, as Volkswagen was recently caught doing with its diesel cars.

Technologies like breathalyzers, drug field test kits, and red light cameras are used by police and prosecutors as magic “guilt-o-meters” – an impartial piece of evidence that shows a person’s guilt. These devices are produced by for-profit companies and then sold to counties and cities in a bidding process. The elected officials in charge of deciding what company gets awarded a contract aren’t immune to bribery – the CEO of Redflex Traffic Systems, Chicago’s largest red light camera vendor, just pleaded guilty to bribery charges involving city officials.

Even when outright bribery’s not involved, the county and city governments look at red light cameras and crime enforcement as revenue streams. If company A promises that they will generate more revenue than company B that’s a big selling point. And one of the easiest ways to guarantee more revenue is to tweak the rules, by altering how your device operates, ever so slightly in your favor.

Here’s an example: a red light camera company and the city commission decide to lower the duration of yellow lights by 0.1 seconds below the minimum standard time without telling anyone. Although it doesn’t seem like much, the 0.1 second difference resulted in $8 million more in red light ticket revenue for the city in a six month period. Sound far fetched? It happened a year ago in Chicago.

What if the company supplying a police department with field drug test kits could say that their kits returned more “positives” than any other? What if a positive field drug test gave the officers probable cause to seize the suspect’s car, cash, and other items under the civil asset forfeiture rules?

What if one company could sell their breathalyzer as getting more “0.08’s” which would lead to more solid DUI cases and therefore more court fines?

“But!” You say, “the police departments have to check things like breathalyzers on a regular basis. That way they know the results are accurate.” That’s true. But consider that the software found in Volkswagen’s diesel cars wasn’t designed just to make the cars put out more emissions all the time, it was designed to make the cars meet emissions standards only when tested, and to cheat on the test. This is what Cory Doctorow presciently called the “Internet of Things That Lie” – that our reliance on regulation (like testing breathlyzers) “is based on the idea that people lie, but things tell the truth.”

Courts and prosecutors depend on their guilt-o-meters telling the truth. But the inner workings of their guilt-o-meters remain hidden from view. Again, from Doctorow:

Without transparency, we put every accused criminal at the mercy of a justice system that runs on robotic witchfinders’ accusations instead of evidence.

Lawyers get to cross examine people – again, based on the idea that people lie. But things subject to regulation, like breathalyzers, are supposed to be taken on faith. Until we let people accused of crimes and their lawyers take a look at the inner workings of the prosecutor’s magic guilt-o-meters, we’re doing a disservice to justice.