Technology, Criminal Investigations, and Ethics

Technology, Criminal Investigations, and Ethics

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Abstract         This paper discusses several implementations of modern technology in criminal investigations, and the ethical issues that accompany these techniques, focusing on the tradeoff between security and privacy. Specific topics include centralization of information, telecommunications, and general technology. Cases are cited for each topic, as well as a discussion of the ethical issues involved.

            With the advent of modern technologies, the face of criminal investigations, and indeed daily life, has been irrevocably altered. In addition to locating criminals with ease, authorities now have the ability to monitor potential criminals before they can commit crimes. However, with an increased ability to detect comes an inevitable tradeoff in privacy. To monitor society as a whole is to monitor both the innocent and the guilty.

Phases of sudden change imply a period of social adaptation, namely debates centered on the 4th amendment and personal privacy. Cases related to the 4th amendment reflect the difficult application of 200 year-old principles to a changing society, while the latter examine the tradeoff between privacy and protection.

            Despite a large number of high-profile cases surrounding general technology and criminal investigations, the majority of advancements in the field have been undeniably beneficial to the law enforcement community. Ballistics, the study of dynamics of projectiles, has aided authorities in tracing countless criminals. By maintaining a record of firearm and ammunition types, sources, and characteristics, investigators are given an invaluable tool in collecting information about crimes. The recent advent of DNA testing and analysis allows for incontrovertible identification of individuals. Traces as insubstantial as fingernails, hair, and skin cells can place an individual at the scene of a crime. Police who are equipped with laptop computers can instantly look up the history of a vehicle, including whether it was reported as stolen or owned by an individual with outstanding warrants. Many innovations have indisputably aided criminal investigation without causing controversy. However, there have been a multitude of technologies that have incited oversensitive privacy advocates.

Centralization of information is one concept that has provoked debate. Large databases can contain information about an entire state or country, which has been done for years in paper form. The distinction is that when information takes electronic form, its location is often indeterminate and the data is prone to corruption or piracy. Given the potential to integrate information about an individual into a single record, there is reason to worry about misuse.

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Third parties interested in this information are numerous; including, but not limited to, corporations, spies, and malicious hackers. Given proper security precautions, illegitimate access to such a large repository of information is not a realistic concern.

There are many reasons to initiate such a system. An investigation of all the potential benefits is beyond the scope of this paper, but as far as law enforcement is concerned, a database of this type would substantially aid investigations. One potential application would be to include biometrics (fingerprint, facial features, etc.), allowing authorities to identify suspects without traditional difficulties caused by discrepancies between the location of the crime and the residence of the perpetrator. When a suspect is identified, the database can provide authorities with solid background information about the individual. Unsolved crimes can be correlated by location, M.O., and other factors. Moreover, maintaining a database would keep convicted felons, sex offenders, and drug dealers out of jobs where they may interact with children. The benefits of a criminal database far outweigh the negatives, if designed with caution. Despite the inherent risks, the public must understand that a well-planned system could be extraordinarily useful.

As email, facsimile, and even Internet phone calls become standard forms of communication for both business and personal interaction, experts are unsure how best to monitor these new media. A Newsweek report issued in 19993 asserted that email was used twice as often as the telephone in the office. Outdated laws are incompatible with these innovations, and are applied as best as possible to circumstances. For example, investigators treated the perusal of email as a wiretap; with permission granted in the form of a warrant, Internet service providers and corporations can be forced to open their servers to authorities. Courts have held to the "wire tap" analogy while society continues to debate the issue.

The FBI implemented a digital surveillance plan called "Carnivore" on July 11, 20001 in order to prevent crimes before they happen. In essence, a device is connected to the servers of Internet Service Providers, where all incoming or outgoing traffic can be monitored for chosen text strings. Allegedly, only flagged emails are scrutinized by officials. However, an independent review by the IIT Research Institute5 revealed several security flaws, including vulnerable ports on the Carnivore unit that could lead to unauthorized operation of the system, as well as several technical concerns that can cause faulty operation. In the end however, the report concluded that all of the issues suggested by privacy advocates were insubstantial, and that the system was on the whole necessary, effective, and legitimate.

One issue has already been brought before the nation's judges to decide. In New Jersey, the rape and murder of a young girl prompted legislators to introduce a bill known as Meghan's Law, which subsequently passed on both a state and federal level. One item on the bill requires convicted sex offenders to inform residents of their identity, address, and crime. In the time since, California and several other states have issued a CD-ROM containing the names and addresses of all recent sex offenders, which igniting privacy advocates. However, citizens can use such a tool as a way to protect their children, especially given the fact that almost 90% of sexual offenders will repeat a crime pattern.4 Although this system may inconvenience convicts, such is the punishment merited for committing a crime. The rights of the innocent take precedence in such a situation.

On March 12, 1992, police used a thermal imaging device in an investigation of Dale Myers, a suspected marijuana farmer. Based on the thermal scan and other evidence, a warrant was issued to search his home, whereupon police confirmed suspicions with the discovery of marijuana plants and farming equipment. Myers pled guilty, but reserved the right to appeal the ruling based on Fourth-Amendment concerns surrounding the infrared scan. Three upper courts agreed with Mr. Myers and his case was thrown out.6 In such a case, the guilt of an individual was not in question; rather the constitutionality of the infrared search that investigators performed. Legal minds concurred that both from an ethical and legal standpoint, the rights of Mr. Myers were violated. The courts seemed to ignore the fact that Mr. Myers was a criminal.

Another scientific technique, often referred to as statistical (or "racial") profiling, has drawn a lot of attention. By mathematically analyzing large amounts of data, a picture is drawn of the personality types most likely to commit crimes. Often, these methods become an ethical issue when the race, nationality, or religion of individuals is brought into question. Citizens who match a given profile are targeted by law enforcement much more frequently then their counterparts. Predictably, a number of organizations from across the political spectrum have voiced their opposition to the practice, including the American Civil Liberties Union which denounced it as "Jim Crow 'justice.'"2 Although some may denounce the stance as "biased", math does not lie.

            Clearly, the past 50 years have shown that the application of technology to crime solving and prevention is a constant battle between effectiveness and moral responsibility. As technology continues its inevitable march forward, we as a society are left to grapple with the ethics of each advance. If society wants the effectiveness of law enforcement to improve, people must learn to give up a little privacy for the safety promised by new technologies.
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