Skip to main content

Can technology prevent another Ferguson?

By Neil Richards
updated 3:29 PM EDT, Tue September 2, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • In Ferguson, the idea of putting dashboard cameras on all police cars has come up
  • A team of entrepreneurs is making a new nail polish that women can wear to prevent date rape
  • Neil Richards: Cameras and chemistry, it seems, can deter police brutality and date rape
  • Richards: But complex social problems can't be really solved with simple technological fixes

Editor's note: Neil Richards is a professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis. He tweets about privacy at @neilmrichards. The opinions in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- In my home town of St. Louis, a petition has gained traction calling for police to wear body cameras that capture everything in front of them while they are doing their jobs. This would be just a step beyond the idea of putting dashboard cameras on all police cars, which some police agencies around the country have started doing. The reasoning goes that with these cameras, we might deter police misconduct and get better answers to disputed questions like what happened in the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson.

In a seemingly unrelated development, a team of entrepreneurs is working on a new nail polish that women can wear to detect the presence of date rape drugs in drinks.

Cameras and chemistry, so the stories go, can deter police brutality and date rape.

Neil Richards
Neil Richards

So far so good. After all, we are living in an age when technological and "innovation" are touted as a kind of Holy Grail for all kinds of problems. "There's an app for that," as the famous ad for Apple's iPhone 3G told us in 2009. But if we dig a little deeper, the reality is that complex social problems require more than technological Band-Aids, no matter how innovative the fix seems.

Let's look at the nail polish first. Putting aside the irony of asking women to prevent rape by wearing nail polish, the reliance on such a thing puts the burden of preventing rape on individual women in bars rather than focusing on the crime of date rape itself. We don't think the solution to violent crime is for people to wear bulletproof vests, nor do we require fireproof homes as a solution to arson. Empowering potential victims is certainly important, but it shouldn't be our first resort to the problem of date rape.

Then there's the proposal of putting cameras on police. If there had been a camera on the police car driven by the officer in the Michael Brown shooting, it might have captured video of the event. To be fair, there's some evidence that video cameras in controlled settings like prisons can deter both police and inmate misconduct.

Dashcams have helped and hurt police

Cameras can prevent bad behavior by police or criminals, and we should think hard about deploying them in appropriate cases. Certainly a judicious use of cameras might be a better use of tax dollars than tanks or sniper rifles or scary black uniforms. But how we deploy technologies matters at least as much as whether we deploy them. If we put cameras on police cars or officers, can the police pause the video? Can they edit it? Can they take the cameras off? How long would such video records be stored and under what conditions of public access? If public access is limited, then the police could selectively release video to advance their version of disputed facts. If public access is easy, we run the risk of exposing the private lives of ordinary people who have done nothing wrong.

But as any lawyer or sports fan knows, video evidence can be disputed and police who spend their days in front of the camera might develop the skills to look good on camera even when they might not be doing good in reality.

The rhetoric surrounding both the police cameras and nail polish suffers from what technology writer Evgeny Morozov has termed "solutionism," the fallacy that every social problem is best suited to a technological fix. Date rape and Ferguson conflicts are results of broad cultural forces. When we deal with issues involving race, gender, civil rights and civil liberties, there's no silver bullet.

Technology can have adverse effects, too. Cameras, for instance, may deter some misconduct but can also create a culture of surveillance that chills our civil liberties, and can be used to invade privacy and create revenge porn, with infamous results, from the Tyler Clementi suicide to the recent mass disclosure of celebrity private pictures.

Police brutality, profiling, racism and economic inequality are cultural and social problems, and we shouldn't expect easy fixes like cameras to solve them. Too much praise for special nail polish can lead us to ignore the underlying problems of date rape and assume they will just go away. Let's move away from easy fixes and think hard about real solutions.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:42 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT