Public Safety and Freedom: The Delicate Balance
July 12, 2022
Founder of Fulcrum Innovation LLC
Technology companies are stepping up in a big way to ensure police technology is developed and deployed equitably and ethically.
In 2020, police practices in the United States and in many other democracies were thrust into the public consciousness and scrutinized in an unprecedented manner. Fueled by several high-profile inflammatory events, widespread protests demanding criminal justice reform took place nationwide. Elected officials and police leaders expressed their commitment to ensuring more equitable outcomes for all community members and greater accountability among those entrusted with the responsibility of securing justice and keeping communities safe. Maintaining this delicate balance is far easier said than done.
Adding to the current tension between balancing security and privacy, the threat of terrorism has grown increasingly complex, with recent concerns shifting from international terrorism to homegrown violent extremism.
Technology is Only a Tool
Beyond the headlines and extreme events that were taking place in the streets, concerns were expressed regarding the types of technology being deployed by law enforcement. In April 2021, several U.S. Senators sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland expressing their concerns regarding the use of predictive algorithms in policing, suggesting that such algorithms, “likely amplify the biases against historically-marginalized groups.”
Other parts of the country saw new data privacy and “algorithmic accountability” legislation proposed. Even in court proceedings, source code and other data, historically considered to be proprietary trade information, were the subject of compelled disclosure and examination by courts citing constitutional concerns with the potential outcomes for defendants.
It’s not just law enforcement that is being scrutinized. Technology companies are considering their own obligations with respect to ethical concerns related to products that could exacerbate historically biased practices or be misused by customers. Some companies were quick to declare that they would no longer offer their solutions to public safety customers.
Unfortunately, this all-or-nothing approach is not helpful, and may even be harmful at a time when violent crime, particularly gun violence, is surging in many communities.
Laura Cooper serves as the Executive Director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, a professional organization representing police executives from the largest law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and Canada. In her view, technology adoption is paramount to successful policing and must be undertaken thoughtfully and in collaboration with companies who are equally committed to ethics and integrity. Cooper offered,
“Technology touches nearly every aspect of modern policing and there is a tremendous amount of responsibility that comes with its development, procurement, and deployment. It’s no longer about buying what’s new and flashy; Departments must be mindful of technology’s impact on the community. Community expectations are not uniform and it’s incumbent on executives and the companies they work with to discuss risks versus rewards, be receptive to feedback, and be open to adjustments.”
Optimism in the Face of Uncertainty
The vast majority of police officers choose the field of law enforcement because they want to serve their community and make a positive difference. Many agencies are adopting creative approaches in public relations and collaboration with community stakeholders.
Police Departments have expanded citizen advisory committees, hosted listening sessions, utilized social media and virtual meetings to deliver briefings, socialized potential technology initiatives, and even adopted evaluation frameworks to help guide technology decisions before implementation to mitigate any potential disparate impact. While there is still much to do, clearly these are steps in the right direction and their efforts are being enhanced by new additional resources from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).
To help build public trust and promote equitable policing practices, the DOJ recently established the National Law Enforcement Knowledge Lab. Inspired by the United Kingdom’s College of Policing, the program is an innovative endeavor designed to assist law enforcement agencies, communities, and researchers in promoting public safety through constitutional policing and stronger community relationships.
The DOJ’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services administers a program known as the Collaborative Reform Initiative Technical Assistance Center (CRI-TAC). CRI-TAC provides customized technical assistance solutions designed to meet the unique needs of law enforcement throughout the U.S., including assisting with private sector coordination and partnerships.
When we survey the practices of some of the most relevant law enforcement technology providers, we find a growing wave of companies working to ensure that technology is being ethically utilized. Many socially responsible companies have embraced their role as providers of the urgently needed, specialized tools without compromising their ethical obligations to safeguard civil rights, civil liberties, and privacy.
Companies are tapping into the wisdom of subject matter experts to help guide their decision-making and are forming advisory committees to help ensure ethical standards are thoughtfully maintained throughout both the development and utilization of their solutions.
Forward-thinking businesses are specifically incorporating auditing, reporting, and security capabilities into their solutions to ensure that accountability, transparency, and data privacy are more easily realized. Other companies are focused on people, proactively soliciting input from advocacy groups and community members, valuing them as stakeholders, and considering them as extensions of their customer base.
Some industry members have adopted a combination of these approaches, engaging with communities directly, working to equip their customers with tools to facilitate transparency, or inviting independent researchers to provide constructive scrutiny.
Listening with Intent
As a global leader in digital investigation solutions, Cellebrite acknowledges that as it develops increasingly sophisticated solutions, they must be ever vigilant in their efforts to ensure that the solutions are used equitably and ethically.
“We recognize the immense responsibility that comes with operating a business that partners with law enforcement agencies but protects the privacy of citizens. To that end, Cellebrite and our Board have a deep commitment to creating a safer world and to operating in a lawful and ethical manner that is unwavering.” – Yossi Carmil, Cellebrite CEO
In 2021, Cellebrite announced the establishment of an Ethics & Integrity Committee to advise their Board of Directors on matters pertaining to evolving international law and ethical considerations related to responsible business practices.
The eight-member panel provides unbiased, expert advice including recommending a set of principles to align sales of Cellebrite solutions with the company’s code of ethics, applicable laws, regulations, and internationally accepted best practices.
“We remember very well that our solutions are extremely powerful and our mission is to make sure that they are used to save lives, to protect the innocent, and make the world a better place. Therefore, ensuring that they do not fall into the wrong hands is extremely important to Cellebrite today and tomorrow.” – Haim Shani, Chairman of the Cellebrite Board
Haim Shani, Chairman Designate, Director of Cellebrite, elaborates on how Cellebrite is committed to ethics through the establishment of the Cellebrite Ethics Committee and its key functions.
Cellebrite has consciously opted not to conduct business in countries with a history of committing human rights violations or persecuting persons for opposing oppressive regimes. In addition, they have hosted subject matter experts to advise their product developers on key policy issues so that those building the solutions appreciate both the utility of their tools, and the importance of inherent controls allowing for audit and transparency.
Additionally, Cellebrite established a Center of Excellence (COE) to better assist customers as they work to modernize investigative workflows. The COE helps agencies navigate the intricacies of a digital evidence strategy and the complexities of assessing current priorities while considering future needs. The COE is not about sales, but about partnering with customers and the communities they serve to ensure best practices are shared and agencies that need assistance have resources available to them.
“We recognize that our customers have an extremely important mission but that they have limited resources. Digital investigation is a rapidly evolving area and technology is ever-changing. Therefore, it’s incumbent upon us to be a good partner to our customers to help them thoughtfully consider solutions that best meet their operational needs and that are appropriate for the communities they serve.” – Marque Teegardin, President, Cellebrite Americas
It’s Not Faith in Technology, it’s Faith in People.
In a 1994 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Steve Jobs prophetically explained how he saw the potential for technology to empower people. When asked later if he still had as much faith in technology as when he first started out, he responded, “Oh, sure. It’s not a faith in technology. It’s faith in people.” 
A good example of this people-centric approach to ensuring their offerings impact communities in an appropriate and just way is Axon, one of the leading providers of technology for public safety. In 2018, Axon established an AI Ethics Board to provide expert guidance on the development of its products and services, paying specific attention to the impact those products could have on community stakeholders. Axon embraced the notion that community members are ultimately the end-users of their public-safety solutions.
“We often think of the police as our primary customers. We should think of the communities they serve as our customers, too. This helps us to ask the question: How might these technologies impact communities?”  – Mike Wagers, Axon’s Senior Vice President of Strategic Initiatives
Based on recommendations from their AI Ethics Board, Axon formed a Community Impact Team and a Community Advisory Coalition to help them work with, and better understand the perspective of communities before products are even produced and deployed. Zoe Russek serves as Axon Enterprise’s Director of Community Impact. Russek offered,
“The overarching goal is to ensure that Axon’s products are ethical and equitable, so we bring in those community voices to help inform product design. And then, similarly, we bring in expert voices on ethics, on public policy, and on ethical uses of AI to [guide] how products and services are delivered and created. The goal is to ensure that the products that Axon is putting out into the world are having a net benefit for society.”
One of the Community Impact Team’s initiatives, Share the Table, works explicitly to enhance understanding between police and communities. Share the Table is a workshop program designed to empower community members with the knowledge they need to engage in conversations around technology in policing.
Police departments can leverage the Share the Table program to bridge potential divides in their community. It allows for proximity between police and community members in a neutral setting where facilitated discussions can occur. Russek has observed that the tone remains positive, even when participants don’t agree, and people continue to productively engage with one another.
The Community Advisory Coalition brings together community leaders to share perspectives and inform Axon’s product and services teams. Coalition members advise product teams to ensure that principles of justice and equity are embedded in the product development process. Product teams work directly with members who represent diverse and marginalized communities to mitigate potential disparate impacts and unintended consequences before solutions are offered to customers.
Data Doesn’t Get Exploited, People Do
Like many organizations, police agencies are custodians of personally identifiable information that must be safeguarded. However, information that law enforcement collects is often uniquely sensitive, from the embarrassing private details of feuds between significant others to the traumatic and deeply personal information related to a sex crime.
In the normal course of business, police collect intimate details of people’s lives related to situations when they are perhaps most vulnerable. Information security and data privacy are paramount for reasons far beyond basic cybersecurity. If the police cannot effectively safeguard people’s deepest secrets, they cannot possibly expect to maintain their trust.
“Security has always been our highest priority, but given the area that we’re talking about today, and more broadly the law enforcement domain, security is the highest priority for our customers as well.” – Neil Beet, AWS Principal Business Development Manager for Justice & Public Safety
Neil Beet previously served as an investigator and trainer with the Metropolitan Police Service in London, specializing in digital forensics and cyber. He now serves as Amazon Web Services’ (AWS) Principal Business Development Manager for Justice & Public Safety. He says that he sees public safety customers looking to partner with AWS for five key reasons:
- Agility and mission impact
- Costs that don’t exclude public sector customers
- AWS capacity to scale
- Ability to innovate by outsourcing basic administrative functions of data storage, and by leveraging the breadth and depth of other AWS featured services
- Security features that are robust but still offer flexibility
Beet explained that AWS employs a “shared responsibility model,” meaning AWS assumes responsibility for the Cloud and associated infrastructure like data centers, but customers take responsibility for the security of their own data. AWS does not have access to customer data. Instead, rather they strive to give customers flexibility and expertise in managing their security controls to meet their governance and information protocols.
Beet explained that customers want to leverage the speed of innovation and access to new services, but they need to do so in a secure manner that offers accountability and audit trails to ensure user compliance. He explained that AWS strives to help law enforcement and the communities they serve by empowering them with information and expertise to make informed decisions based on proven best practices. Beet stated,
“Connecting customers with domain experts is critically important. It gives our customers access to like-minded partners, to ensure that they’re approaching the responsible use of technology in the right way.”
Beet stated that AWS is investing substantially in information sharing and training programs to equip users with the right skills to use technology responsibly. AWS has committed to providing free training to 29 million people by 2025 through their AWS Educate and AWS re/Start programs. For public safety customers, AWS offers training and certifications focused on areas such as security and artificial intelligence, so customers are better equipped to use technology in an informed and responsible way.
Garrett Langley founded Flock Safety with an ambition to help communities both solve and deter crime. Flock’s solutions primarily center around automated license plate reader technology that can also record a vehicle’s make, color, and over 20 other distinct vehicle details like roof racks and bumper stickers. Most criminals require transportation to carry out their illegal activities. According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 97% of car thieves are charged with additional crimes.
License plate reader technology often draws concern from community members. Flock doesn’t shy away from the complicated issues and conversations surrounding license plate reader technology. The company publicly declares that technology can make communities safer with a values-first mindset.
Flock recognized early on that their customers might need help explaining to their communities and elected officials how the company’s technology works, and to an extent, how it deliberately does not work. Flock offers tool kits to help police leaders have thoughtful conversations about the benefits, risks, and controls to offset their technology risks. Josh Thomas serves as Vice President with Flock Safety. He explained,
“Part of our DNA at Flock is enabling our customers to be accountable to their communities.”
Flock feels that it’s better to incorporate front-end controls into a technology solution than to simply hold users accountable for misusing a tool. Thus, a record of every search is maintained and available for auditing to ensure information is used solely for law enforcement purposes. The data is automatically deleted after 30 days by default. Flock does not sell or share data collected and only customers have access.
Flock is currently soliciting a third-party, academic study to evaluate their technology and to produce a report identifying ways that they can further enhance transparency, equity, and appropriate engagements with police and the communities they serve.
Law enforcement agencies tasked with keeping communities safe and providing justice for victims need sophisticated technical tools. These tools need to be provided by thoughtful partners who aren’t just driven by business metrics but are concerned about equitable outcomes. Many companies are demonstrating genuine leadership in the space, effectively serving as important partners not only to law enforcement but also to the communities served by them.
Safeguarding privacy and individual rights does not have to be at odds with capitalizing on powerful technology solutions to help maintain a safe and just society. Industry leaders are demonstrating their own commitment to maintaining an appropriate balance that equitably and ethically serves all stakeholders like never before.
About the Author
Christian Quinn completed a 24-year law enforcement career in 2021, serving as a senior leader with the Fairfax County (VA) Police Department. He led the establishment of a new Cyber & Forensics Bureau to account for emergent trends related to digital investigations and operational technology.
He was responsible for numerous technical initiatives including body-worn cameras, unmanned aerial systems, ballistic identification, and implementing a mobile crime lab program. Mr. Quinn holds a Master of Forensic Sciences Degree from George Washington University. He has completed several executive development programs and is a graduate of the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Virginia.
Mr. Quinn is the founder of Fulcrum Innovation LLC, a consulting practice focused on the intersection of public sector technology and associated policy and business issues. He is passionate about the ethical adoption of technology for the betterment of all people and frequently speaks throughout the U.S. and internationally, advising public safety professionals and the industry partners who support them on key policy and product issues.
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