San Francisco Cops Exposed by Digital Village

Those who claim that racism, sexism, and homophobia run rampant in the San Francisco Police Department got some high-powered ammunition last week. Videos posted on the Web showed police officers participating in outrageous acts — an embarrassment for the city and a strong demonstration of how technology is reshaping society.

Although the videos have been taken down from their original site, they still exist elsewhere on the Web. In a lame attempt to be funny, the footage shows officers ogling a woman stopped for a traffic violation, an African American officer eating out of a dog bowl, and an officer dressed as a transgendered person wiggling his tongue towards a police captain.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom held a press conference to denounce the digital dirt. “It is shameful. It is offensive. It is sexist. It is homophobic, it is racist, and we’re going to make sure it ends,” he said.

Digital Info Travels Fast

It’s nice to see the mayor taking a break from his wasteful quest to foist a government-run Internet on every man, woman and child in San Francisco. Real concerns, such as a disrespectful and unprofessional culture among city police, call for fixing and fortunately have been exposed by the largely unregulated Internet. In fact, the creator himself posted the damning data.

Officer Andrew Cohen, producer of the videos, posted some scenes on the Web in order to “boost morale of law enforcement.” If that doesn’t make one wonder if he’s confused, consider that he told the San Francisco Chronicle that the videos were “never intended to be shown outside the ranks.”

It’s truly shocking that anyone, especially a police officer, could think that something posted on a Web site will remain private. But his mistake goes to show that it’s taking a while for some to realize that the Internet is in full public view and that digital information travels quickly. The disturbing images of torture at Abu Ghraib prison taken by U.S. military prison guards with digital cameras comes to mind. But not everyone likes this free flow of information.

Increasing Tolerance

Writing for Wired.com, Jennifer Granick of Stanford University’s law school complains about loss of privacy and the growing pervasiveness of face recognition software. She says, “A new face may be the only way to preserve some semblance of privacy.” Her comment is true if society continues to look at privacy the same way it always has, but that is unreasonable and unlikely. Instead, over time individuals will learn that even if they live in a big city, their actions might be judged as though they live in a small town.

Increased public scrutiny of individual actions could have the effect of making people more tolerant of mistakes because it could be them under the microscope next. And it will certainly make people more careful about how they behave. In the case of the San Francisco police department, this type of oversight is badly needed. When it comes to face recognition software, its growing pervasiveness is a positive development.

Companies such as Riya are providing it for average individuals to use to search photo databases. What that means is that the government no longer has a monopoly on the tech. For now at least, America appears to be moving towards a “transparent society” rather than one in which only Big Brother owns the tools to control. It wasn’t always clear that would happen.

Freedom for All

Back in 2002, when law-enforcement officials used face recognition technology to scan the faces of fans attending Super Bowl XXXV in Tampa, it was worrisome not only because government was watching, but also because citizens didn’t have a good method to watch back. Things have changed, and accelerating technological advances continue to enhance freedom overall.

The San Francisco police video scandal shows that technology can catch wrongdoing even by those who think they are above scrutiny. It may be that the more old-fashioned privacy is lost, the better off everyone will be. Welcome to the digital village.

Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is director of Technology Studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute. She also serves on the Technology Advisory Board for the Acceleration Studies Foundation.

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