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Calgary Police Service looking to public to govern use of policing technology

The Calgary Police Service is looking to form a permanent citizen–member ethics committee to govern the use of algorithmic policing technologies in the city.

Identifying that law enforcement has used the technologies inappropriately in other jurisdictions across Canada and the US, the CPS wants to create an ethical framework to get ahead what they said are the impacts from misguided applications.

Algorithmic policing technologies include predictive technologies like identifying where potential crimes may occur, or individuals who may be involved in criminal activity, and algorithmic surveillance technologies like automated licence plate readers, social media surveillance, social media network analysis, and facial recognition.

“We’ve seen policing change in the last couple years like crazy, and so we feel that technology here is a key to some of the transformational stuff that needs to happen in policing,” said Brent Dyer, executive director for the information technology and infrastructure division at the Calgary Police Service.

Dyer said that it’s important for CPS to engage with citizens early on before the adoption of more advanced technologies.

“We’ve seen agencies put these out as tools, and they put them out without much consultation with citizens,” he said.

“We want to do engagement around this so that as CPS moves forward, and we start adopting these new technologies—these powerful technologies—that we have that proper input.”

The service is looking to have members of the public apply to be part of the committee by May 17, via email. The first meeting is expected to be held in June of this year.

Powerful tools with ethical concerns to be addressed

A 2020 report entitled Algorithmic Policing in Canada Explained, prepared by the The University of Toronto’s International Human Rights Program at the Faculty of Law, and the Citizen Lab, outlined the types of algorithmic policing tools in use at major policing agencies across the nation.

The report indicated that the Calgary Police Service does use facial recognition software from NEC in the context of comparing photos and police sketches with existing mug-shot databases, and uses Palantir Gotham for social network analysis, but not for predictive or algorithmic policing.

The report highlighted a number of ethical, legal, and constitutional issues raised by the use of algorithmic policing in the nation. Chief among these are the perpetuation of bias through the use of algorithms, targeting race and socio-economic status, privacy concerns, and the lack of transparency over how algorithms arrive at a conclusion.

Dyer said that the use of technology has served to provide better policing.

“It drives down costs, it makes for better investigations, and at the end of the day, it has some really good social impact,” he said.

The service’s cybercrime unit was recently lauded during the last Police Commission meeting, after the full details of the participation of officers in an international operation to tackle a major ransomware ring were revealed. In Operation GoldDust, the use of network analysis was essential to identify the laundering of cryptocurrency from attacks to ring leaders in Russia.

Avoiding pitfalls through governance

In Canada, police forces have sought to avoid the more controversial use of algorithmic technologies as seen in the United States. In an LAPD program, the use of technology to track chronic offenders was found by the Office of the Inspector General to have “significant inconsistencies in terms of how
chronic offenders had been selected or retained in the program, as well as how chronic
offender points were being calculated and tracked.”

Writing in the 2020 University of Toronto report, Miles Kenyon said that “the law enforcement representatives we interviewed for this project demonstrated that they are aware of human rights concerns with algorithmic policing technologies and of the potential dangers to historically marginalized groups.”

He said that police forces have either refused to adopt particular tools, or have implemented measures to mitigate potential negative impacts.

And avoiding the negative impacts to the public is at the heart of the service’s goal for a steering group.

“It just speaks to a new way of doing business and policing, it speaks to serving our citizens much better, and quite frankly, it’s the right thing to do,” said Dyer.

He said that the Toronto Police Service had done something similar, but not on a permanent basis. Instead the committee would become a permanent aspect of the service in Calgary.

“We feel here in Calgary, we want to make this a sustainable committee through time because technology changes,” he said.

The steering committee also has the support of Calgary’s Police Commission, said Dyer.

Public participation not limited to experts

Dyer said that the service isn’t just looking for subject matter experts on policing and on technology. He said that opinions of all kinds, from people from varied backgrounds, were important to creating a set of guidelines that would be accepted by the public.

“This is really about that public confidence,” he said.

“We understand that the public play an absolutely critical role in policing, and we know that technology does as well. Matching these things together and getting getting the right public input is going to be super important for our ethics committee here.”

“I think if we loaded this committee up with a bunch of experts, I don’t think we’d be serving citizens well,” he said.

In terms of makeup, CPS is looking for about half the participants to be from the public, and half from the service. The committee will be made up of between 12 to 15 people, committing to a one-year term with a minimum of four meetings per year.

However from within the service, CPS is looking for members with police operations, information technology, data analytics, risk management, and diversity and anti-racism expertise.

Committee results will be open and transparent

The Calgary Police Service is planning on making the work done by the ethics committee open to the public at large.

“The technology code of ethics, those types of things, that’ll all be consumable by the public,” said Dyer.

He said that the work being done by the committee would be separate from any sensitive police work being done, and thus did not need to have any secrecy.

“It’s out in the open—that’s the whole point of this committee,” he said.

The results from the discussions are expected to be released sometime during the fall of this year, either through the Police Commission or via another release process.

“I’m going to realistically say that by the fall we’ll have we’ll have our first communication out to the public on what we’re what we’re doing,” said Dyer.