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iPolicing in the era of smart phones

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In the era of the Smart phone, having access to thousands of applications and advanced data and communication methods has arguably made our lives easier. They've provided us with an incredible array of functions with new ones being added at a breakneck pace. This has included flexible designs, quad core processors, high resolution and panoramic cameras and the transformation from portable messaging and email devices to video-streaming machines that can allow us to browse the internet at lightning speeds.

However, with the advent of smart phone technology, modern policing was confronted by a unique set of challenges: The demand for cost-effective budgets, increased efficiency of an officer's time and calls for greater visibility where they are needed most -- on the streets.

The increasing efficiency of policing that stems from officers using tailored smart phone applications has been largely neglected in the public discussion so far. What new technologies could mean regarding the prevention and investigation of crime, may be the answers to the very challenges they face.

In the hands of law enforcement officers, a smartphone can furnish them with individuals most sensitive and personal information. Where you've been, where you're going, who you've been meeting with -- are just some of the minute details being logged unassumingly on a device that connects you with the world.

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They can also be ones incriminated or called for defense. The potential for gaining access to your vast storage of communicative records, locations, pictures, notations and even navigation -- are just some of the ways in which smartphone technology can be critical yet intrusive. 

A remarkable amount of police work includes bringing suspects to departments for further recognition. In near future this might change. During the last few months various police departments in the United States have started introducing new identification technologies that build on smart phones. For example, Mobile Offender Recognition and Information System (MORIS) promise to identify persons of interest over the web using either iris or facial recognition algorithms. This application requires an additional camera device, which is attached to the back of an officer's smart phone. The application matches a high resolution photo of the unique colored part of an eye, or a face photo, to an identity in the police's database. In an ideal situation, the police patrol is able to continue its duties within minutes from stopping a driver who is suspected of driving with another's driver's license.

Smartphones can also allow instant and secure access to applications such as the Police National Computer, whose database can allow them to checks personal identifications, vehicles registrations and criminal records on the beat rather than back at the station. This type of remote access can also contribute to reducing administrative duties and requirements.

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Tailored applications to law enforcement agencies are only one option among others regarding the ways how smart phones can improve policing. Smartphones are equipped with audio, video, and position recording systems. These systems capture routinely major events that affect public safety. Smartphones enable direct public participation in policing on a completely new level.

For example, the police could start accepting data from active citizen's smartphones in a 9-1-1 style emergency inbox. Moreover, the public could point out the places where they feel insecure through a smart phone application, or report where they have witnessed crimes. The limited resources of the police could thus be better allocated, and the whole policing process brought more transparent and reactive.

Despite increasing efficiency, and at least in theory, every citizen can become a digital detective on his own right; we must think about whether that is what we really want. Increasing the communication between the public and the police is a noble goal and can culminate in bringing greater democracy in the policing process is as well.

However, the participation of public, even only as providers of evidence, raises important questions of representativeness and accountability. Innovative policing experiments, for example restorative justice councils in the UK, have demonstrated how few people actually are interested in participating in policing. The ones who are interested rarely represent the average citizen. Rather they represent a small segment of society who is incredibly interested, for one reason or another, in security provision. The danger lies in the unprofessional interests of these activists.

What if the police would suddenly be overwhelmed with evidence about Muslim delinquents? Perhaps this would tell less about changes in criminal behavior, and more about the interests of voluntary detectives. Also, if public participation in policing were to increase through the use of smart phones that would probably change the public's legal responsibilities in providing evidence. It is hard to imagine how the criminal justice system could otherwise deal with those who decide not to send crucial information that could potentially save lives, or with those who report every misstep of their irritating neighbor just to get rid of him.

Smartphones enable a significant improvement in police efficiency, but rather than embracing this opportunity with open arms, perhaps what is needed is a time out. In an age when organized criminal and extremist movements are gathering pace throughout the western world, we must think thoroughly of who we should trust in the vital task of policing.

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The conclusion may well be that citizens prefer a trustworthy police officer over an efficient one. This should be remembered at every step when policing is changed to better respond to the challenges of the smart phone era. Increased efficiency does not justify compromised trustworthiness.


Osmo Timonen is a graduate student in Criminology at Linacre College, University of Oxford.

Mohammad I. Aslam is an Editor at the Montreal Review and a Ph.D candidate in Political Science at the department of Middle-East & Mediterranean Studies, King's College London.


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Mohammad I. Aslam is an Editor at the Montreal Review and Ph.D candidate in Political Science at the Department of Middle-East & Mediterranean Studies, King's College London.
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