Race, Policing, and Computing: Project Green Light

Discussed in this post:

Race, Policing, and Detroit’s Project Green Light

Yesterday the Wayne County Prosecutor publicly apologized to the first American known to be wrongfully arrested via facial recognition algorithm: a black man arrested earlier this year by the Detroit Police.

The statement cited the unreliability of software, especially as applied to people of color. With this context in mind, some university and high school instructors teaching about technology may be interested in engaging with the Black Lives Matter protests by teaching about computing, race, policing, and surveillance.

ABOVE: A “Project Green Light” green light.

I’m delighted that thanks to the generosity of Tawana Petty and others, The ESC Center will now publicly share a module on this topic developed for my online course on “Data Science Ethics.” You are free to make use of it in your own teaching, or you might just find the materials interesting (or shocking).

Some aspects of this case study may be surprising to you if you have not been following the news about it. Detroit is presently at the forefront of automated algorithmic surveillance in the US. There are lessons here for almost anyone.

As one example from Detroit’s system, as soon as you cross the city limit into majority-Black Detroit, property owners can pay a fee to have real-time police monitoring of INDOOR cameras that have allegedly been used for automated facial recognition in the past (that is, to use computers to routinely identify people, track their movements and/or check them for outstanding warrants, rather than to investigate a particular crime). The use of facial recognition against people who are not suspects in any crime may be continuing now, according to allegations in the most recent news reports earlier this month.

The lesson consists of a case study of Detroit’s Project Green Light, the new city-wide police surveillance system that involves automated facial recognition, real-time police monitoring, very-high-resolution imagery, cameras indoors on private property, a paid “priority” response system, a public/private partnership, and other distinctive features.

ABOVE: Interview Still of Tawana Petty, Director, Data Justice Program, DCTP

The system has allegedly been deployed to target peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters. Here is the lesson: 

The lesson includes videos, readings (including yesterday’s apology), and suggested discussion questions and assessment.  With some tuning, I bet this lesson is suitable for courses in:

  • Information Science
  • Computer Science
  • Science & Technology Studies (STS)
  • Information Technology
  • Sociology
  • Criminology
  • Media Studies
  • Public Policy
  • Law
  • Urban Planning
  • Ethnic Studies
  • Applied Ethics

If you know of a mailing list or forum that would reach instructors of these courses who would be interested, please feel free to forward this or the lesson URL at the top of this post: http://esc.umich.edu/project-green-light/

ABOVE: Glowing Project Green Light sign.

This lesson is offered as part of the “Emergency ESC” initiative from the Center for Ethics, Society, and Computing (ESC). If you are an instructor and you are willing to share similar material, ESC would be happy to act as a clearinghouse for these lessons and to promote them, whether or not you are affiliated with our center.  Please e-mail esc-center@umich.edu to suggest or contribute. They will share selections on the “Emergency ESC” page in the future.

Digital In/Justice

I want to recommend a new post at Culture Digitally, “Digital In/Justice,” both because it may be of interest to the readers of this blog, and because it features Microsoft Research’s Mary Gray. Culture Digitally arranges occasional dialogues, in which two or more scholars go back and forth in conversation on a topic they are just working out in their own mind. It’s meant as a chance to make visible the raw development of ideas, unpolished and engaging. In this one, Mary Gray and Nick Couldry (King’s College, London) tried to develop their idea of “digital injustice,” offering an opportunity to rethink issues like the digital divide, equitable access, voice and opportunity, and the institutional environment necessary for such issues of equity to be addressed and protected. It is at once philosophical and quite personal, and I hope those of you who want new ways to think about digital media and the ethics of public participation will find intriguing ideas in it.

For instance, here’s a tiny clip, a comment by Mary:

Yes, cutting off access to an individual’s capacity to contribute to cultural dialogue and deliberation is, arguably, a case of injustice. But this formulation presumes or, at least, prioritizes individual autonomy and agency as the (pre-public/pre-mediated?) source of voice. If negotiation and articulation of the self are collective acts… then the greater injustice is not the loss of individual access to media as sites of personal narrative and expression. The more pressing injustice is that such a loss forecloses the use of media as processes of contribution, deliberation, contestation, and play in the social construction of the self — from the well of possibilities of a future articulation of self. Simply put, I’m interested in prioritizing information and technology access as a precious cultural resource…

And one from Nick, later in the conversation:

Is this where privatized conditions of digital discourse… bite most, in undercutting the common spaces of debate where claims of social injustice might be made, heard and recognised, and by distributing unequally access to the discursive resources that enable some to command general attention? If so, then I would like to add to your interesting conception of digital media as a ‘space of possibles’ the idea that such a space must allow to be heard and registered claims for the redistribution of ‘actuals’.