Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Tracking People: The Grand Finale

As you’ll know if you’ve been following me on Twitter, this month saw the culmination of the AHRC Network on Tracking People: a day-long workshop down in London, bringing together a range of industrialists, civil servants, academics and representatives of a range of third sector organisations. There were more than eighty attendees: familiar faces from the three workshops at Leeds, and a range of new faces (the rationale for holding it in London was that it made attendance for policymakers far easier – a move which I think paid off). Policy is a fascinating issue to me: it’s so far outside my usual experiences, so it was interesting to speak with representatives of the Centre for Applied Science and Technology, who advise the government on matters technical.
    The day was generally given over to discussion: opening with summaries from Anthea Hucklesby, Kevin Macnish and myself reflecting on insights from the previous three workshops and what these might mean for the future of “tracking”. You can read summaries from these workshops on the tracking website, and I’ll give a “big picture” overview of my thoughts from the network as a whole in a later post. For now, let me focus on the content of the presentations.
     The first session saw Jeff Hodgkinson (lately of South Wales Police) and Sara Murray of Buddi give practitioners’ perspectives. Jeff spoke of his experiences of electronic monitoring in criminal justice, and the need for more joined up and “creative” thinking to get the most of it: a challenge when you are pressed for time and resources. Sara Murray took a very different, focussing not on Buddi’s experiences, but on its upcoming applications in self-monitoring and “nudging” to address cravings and so improve health. Given Buddi’s experiences in location tracking for both criminal justice and healthcare applications, this was a little disappointing, but it was also a helpful reminder that “tracking” covers more than just electronic monitoring of location, and opened a line of discussion where many similar issues arise.
    After lunch, there was a session on humane and proportionate tracking of individuals. Anita Dockley of the Howard League for Penal Reform expressed their concerns that electronic monitoring of offenders expands the “carceral space” to the home, and begins to encompass familial and social relationships. By contrast, Tom Sorell of Warwick University expressed the view that of all the intrusions that the state can make into your life, electronic monitoring is relatively mild (compared, say, to tapping your phone, or posting a watch on you). Our very own Amanda Keeling (of Leeds Unversity’s Centre for Disablity Studies) discussed legal issues related to the monitoring and detention of disabled people, including some important rulings that had set out the limit of how people could be monitored or detained for “their own good” on the basis of disabilities. Richard Powley of Age UK discussed the pros and cons of tracking technology particularly for people with dementia, adapting a quote from Bishop Heber to suggest that “every (technology) pleases: only man is vile”. In other words, technology offers much potential for benefit – but also misuse.
    The final session saw Magali Ponsal of the Ministry of Justice and Mark Griffiths of G4S offer perspectives from the civil service and industry on the future of electronic monitoring, noting the incremental nature of changes to the underlying technology since its introduction (a contrast to the radical changes in consumer technology and self-tracking), and the significance of the human and policy systems that went around the technology. This led to some discussions about the business models around electronic monitoring, and the extent to which it is outsourced to the private sector in different countries.

    So, after four workshops, what are the lessons to be learned? I can only speak from my own point of view as an engineer – criminologists, social scientists, and ethicists (among others!) may well have different views – but here are my thoughts:
Technology for locating or recognising someone or something is pretty well-developed, and our capacity for doing it reliably and more efficiently will continue to improve. The drivers for location, computer vision and biometric monitoring in robotics applications will ensure that these developments continue irrespective of their value for the tracking of humans.  On the other hand, I don’t see that any game-changing technologies are likely to fundamentally alter the landscape.

Transdermal monitoring – of blood sugar, alcohol, and so forth – is likely to get more advanced, and become increasingly integrated into worn or carried devices. We’ll see more of this electronic monitoring within healthcare. Whether it’ll ever really take off beyond the quantified self crowd, I don’t know, but I daresay if people can be monitored more easily at home, that will be taken up as part of the wider telehealth drive.

The big issues are less to do with developing the technology itself (which, as noted above, is already pretty good and has plenty of drivers to advance), than about human and sociotechnical issues of tracking. This is true for all forms of tracking, from electronic monitoring of offenders as an alternative to prison, to self-tracking of biometrics. Matters of who owns data (legally); who possesses data (practically); how it is prevented from being accessed by unauthorised parties; and who knows what data is held about them. The risks of “black box” machine learning algorithms facing inadequate critique, yet being used to make crucial judgements and decisions. Matters of consent and coercion, and the wider problem of foreseeing the societal risks of fast-moving technologies before they become widespread.

I don’t have any solutions to these: just that these are issues that we will need to grapple with if we hope to control technology (to paraphrase Geoffrey Vickers) rather than have it control us. Of course, identifying these issues is a necessary first step towards grappling with them: and that, of course, is the purpose of the network. The next step, of course, is to begin grappling with them…

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