Urgent Matters

As technology changes rapidly, policies lag too far behind

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A lot is happening in the technology arena, with innovations happening constantly in the IP and wireless sectors. But policy development lags well behind technology advances, and that could be dangerous as the new applications are used in more critical settings.

We live in an incredibly exciting technological time, with innovations being developed at a remarkable pace. From ubiquitous sensors to remote-controlled drones and self-driving vehicles, what once was portrayed only in futuristic science-fiction movies is becoming very real. Everything is interconnected wirelessly and can be customized to meet the latest needs by adding lines of software code. The possibilities are seemingly endless.

Exactly what the future will look like is impossible to predict, but one point increasingly seems to be obvious: We’re not ready yet.

I’m not talking about technical issues. Sure, there is still a lot of work to be done on the technology side, but those roadmaps are relatively clear. There is little doubt in my mind that engineers can develop solutions to address almost any technical challenge, if given the proper resources and policy direction.

There’s lots of money to be made with most of these technological advances, so resources should not be a big-picture issue. But, as is typical, policy development lags well behind technology innovation.

Deploying body cameras on police officers is a prime example. In the wake of police-misconduct allegations, there was a push to put body cameras on officers, so there would be evidence of what the officer was seeing when an incident occurs. The concept seemed straightforward, and federal funding quickly was put behind the initiative.

But body cameras have proven to be far from a straightforward proposition. There are technical and financial questions regarding camera deployment and storage procedures for massive amounts of video, but those pale in comparison to fundamental policy questions.

Who should be able to view body-camera video? There are those say that it should all be open to the public, which is funding the body-camera initiative. Others claim that only those involved in—or affected by—an incident should be able to see it (not sure how that would be defined clearly). Some say the police should have discretion about what is released, but critics of this notion say that it defeats the purpose of body cameras, because police effectively could choose not to release video documenting misconduct.

When should body cameras be operating? If the camera is turned on at the discretion of the officer, it might not be filming when an incident occurs—on purpose or accidentally—which undermines the purpose of the body camera. Some argue that they should be on all the time, but doing that could undermine the intelligence-gather process, because the most valuable informants do not want to on any kind of video, much less the kind that arguably is a public record that can be seen by anyone.

Meanwhile, there also are all kinds of privacy concerns. Do you want to let an officer in your house—even for routine questioning on a matter no directly related to you and your family, other than it happened in your neighborhood—if the officer is wearing a camera documenting where all of the cool stuff is in your house? For potential burglars, “casing a joint” doesn’t get any easier than filing an open-records request and watching such video while from the comforts of their own home.

And these unintended consequences are much less complex than the issues we could be dealing with in the very near future.

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Insights from Donny Jackson concerning the most important news, trends and issues.

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Donny Jackson

Donny Jackson is editor of Urgent Communications magazine. Before joining UC in 2002, he covered telecommunications for four years as a freelance writer and as news editor for Telephony magazine....
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