All the security money can buy

In which I get cross about something I just read. Why do some people talk about safety and security as commodities that can be supplied by technology?

Just read this article via Twitter and it gave me chills for all the wrong reasons. The article was originally published in Forbes.

I haven’t fully processed this in my head but I wanted to get down why I thought this was a terrible way of looking at safety and security in the urban environment. (Going to assume you’ve read the article first.)

I’m open to having my mind changed on any of the following, by the way.

Joshi sets the scene talking about perils to society (“…organized terrorism, accidents, planned robberies or thefts…”), putting the cause of these down to “other people”.

Here’s my first problem, there’s a marked lack of curiosity about how these perils originate and what motivates the behaviours. The piece is written in a way that encourages the thought that these terrible things are here, we don’t need to think about why they’re here, we just need to do something to prevent them taking place. Oh, look! Technology!

Security as a commodity?

And preventing such incidents is paramount among the duties of smart city governors, along with ensuring the adequate supply of basic necessities such as food and water. To that end, smart city governments can use technologies like IoT and artificial intelligence in physical security.

Naveen Joshi (2019)

And there’s my second problem; treating security and safety as a commodity; something that needs to be supplied to the population (or the bit of it that isn’t doing the bad things). And like water or food supply, it’s something that is delivered by technical infrastructure, in this case AI and Internet of Things.

Then rest of the article is basically a breathless run down of the surveillance state’s greatest hits.

Security as an indicator of society’s health?

But what if we made the assumption that security isn’t a commodity to be supplied, but the by-product of a well-functioning and just society?

I’m no criminologist but I think we left the idea that “some people are just bad” behind us a long time ago. Reasons for criminality and radicalism are hugely complex with roots in economic hardship, mental and physical health problems and social disenfrachisement.

Using technology to cure the symptom won’t address those causes

But that’s OK. They’re “other people”.

Also, by turning safety into a commodity rather than a right or responsibility, it becomes subject to market forces and inequality. Ask the people of Flint, Michigan what it’s like to be denied a basic commodity.

Looking at the list of tech solutions Joshi promotes to solve a safety and security crisis, it’s not unforeseeable that, mishandled, they could exacerbate problems of urban inequality, lack of social and economic well-being and so on.

And another thing!

There’s a race and class side to this that I’m not qualified to talk about but I can’t help noticing that comparatively few people are talking about using AI and machine learning to identify white collar crime before it happens or to flag up political and corporate corruption.

Or maybe there’s a blockchain for that.

Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

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