Identifying Opportunities, Pitfalls of Future Internet Tech in Criminal Justice

A 31-page report from the Rand Corp. examines the tools, resources and potential stumbling blocks presented by the technologies of the near future.

by / August 20, 2015
A recent study lists the need for improved Internet infrastructure and video conferencing capabilities within the corrections system. Flickr/Thomas Hawk

The U.S. criminal justice system is vast, consisting of agencies, processes and components that aim to control crime and penalize those who violate local, state and federal laws. How this is accomplished has changed dramatically over the years, a trend that likely will continue as technology continues to progress.

To that end, the Rand Corp. released on Monday, Aug. 17 its findings on the potential future of the U.S. criminal justice system as it relates to advancing Internet technologies.

The 31-page report assessed a number of topics, including opportunities to leverage the growing Internet of Things, improve information-sharing between law enforcement agencies, and the civil rights and privacy implications that arise from the expanded use of emerging technologies.

The report, Using Future Internet Technologies to Strengthen Criminal Justice, examines the tools, resources and potential stumbling blocks presented by the technologies of the near future.

John S. Hollywood, senior operations researcher with Rand Corp., said the premise of the study – made possible by an award from the National Institute of Justice – was to take a proactive look at how the community could leverage emerging technologies and mitigate the risks associated with them.

“Part of the motivation for this is that they were seeing new technologies coming online," he said, "and they wanted to have an expert panel look proactively at some of these new technologies and how they might help criminal justice agencies, as opposed to waiting for the technologies to be widespread and essentially reacting to their emergence."

Among the more striking needs that the panel of 16 technology and criminal justice experts identified was the necessity for a more responsive, unified information-sharing system, said Hollywood.

Existing database systems, controlled by individual agencies, offer access to information, but are ultimately limited by the infrastructure and policies of their overseers, Hollywood said.

“In general, the top cluster of needs or theme had to do with being able to use these new technologies to improve information sharing as well as protection of information,” he said. “While there is information sharing that goes on, a lot of it is point-to-point specialized connection writing.”

But meeting the need for a more streamlined information system is not one Hollywood expects to come easily. 

“It’s very difficult to do information sharing, have interoperability and do that well. There are huge numbers of complications in order to really do a good job information sharing,” he said. “You need to have commonalities not just in the data sharing, but commonalities being able to physically get data across different networks. You need to have commonalities in the governance and the policies and procedures on what information is being shared and who has access to that data … all that is very difficult.”

In line with sharing the data, the researcher said adequately protecting the information will be a key undertaking. The exchange of personal information inherently raises the question of potential privacy and civil rights implications.

While Hollywood said no specific needs were highlighted in panel discussions, he said the topic of privacy and civil rights will need to be ongoing considerations for the criminal justice community.

“Really the theme overall was the importance of the security of the information, as well as when you’re collecting, storing and analyzing information, that you’re maintaining privacy and civil rights," he said. "These are really persistent issues that need to be built in from the beginning as you are designing and rolling out these systems."

Hollywood said some of the needs the group discussed did not center on future technologies, but rather the need for improved infrastructure – especially where it related to the courts and correctional systems.

The importance of video teleconferencing (VTC) for inmates and high-speed Internet connections for courts were among some of the highest-ranking needs listed in the report.

“There was just the idea that as of right now, VTC kinds of arrangements are still pretty rare,” Hollywood said.

While video conferencing is not necessarily a new development, the researcher said some of the basic infrastructure is lacking to be able to institute the useful technology. He also said the remote connections would allow inmates, who were scheduled for release, the opportunity to connect community corrections officers and prepare for reintegration into their communities.

The report states that these needs – and the principal barrier – were primarily about obtaining funding for technology improvements; not much research and development is needed in this area.

The research team also pointed to questions of how police officers in the real world would interact with the “intelligent agents” of the future and the Internet of Things. Growing interest and advances in driverless vehicle technology raised the question, "How will humans and the unmanned machines interact from the perspective of law enforcement?"

“I would say the most striking, and to a certain extent futuristic need had to do with law enforcement’s call to develop policies and procedures for dealing with [driverless vehicles]," Hollywood said. "Some of the discussion had to do with how do you signal an unmanned vehicle … to stop an intersection where the traffic signal is telling the car to go one way and there’s an officer in the intersection gesturing them to stop for example."

As for how the criminal justice community will handle the emerging technology, the answer lies in how well they can work together, manage funding and keep a finger on the pulse of the advancing future. 

Eyragon Eidam Web Editor

Eyragon Eidam is the Web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as  assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at eeidam@erepublic.com.

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