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The Threat of Predictive Policing to Data Privacy and Personal Liberty

Inaccurate information from data brokers can damage careers and reputations. It's time for US privacy laws to change how law enforcement and legal agencies obtain and act on data.

Arjun Bhatnagar

December 27, 2022

4 Min Read
The words "data privacy" on a keyboard
Source: Maksim Kabakou via Shutterstock

"Predictive policing" sounds like something from the plot of the movie Minority Report. However, it's a very real practice that relies heavily on data collected and disseminated by two of the largest data brokers in the United States — RELX and Thomson Reuters.

When we talk about big data, we tend to focus on companies such asAmazon, Equifax, Experian, Google, and Meta (formerly known as Facebook). These are mostly companies that commercialize data for marketing efforts, business decisions, product insights, and financial reasons. RELX and Thomson Reuters operate a little differently. These data giants broker data access, analytics tools, news, and research to libraries, scientists, large corporations, law enforcement, and other government agencies.

They are sometimes referred to as "law enforcement data brokers" due to the breadth of information they make available to legal and law enforcement agencies. Unfortunately, this is also a major point of contention with the public.

What Do Law Enforcement Data Brokers Do?

Law enforcement data brokers have used technology to expand the scope of public surveillance far beyond traditional surveillance means. While RELX and Thomson Reuters are secretive about their data-collection resources, there are many obvious information veins, including court records, news collections, research studies, and any information you make public that they feel is valuable.

It's not just the massive amount of data they have on every one of us that's a problem, it's also how they analyze this data to make human risk predictions. The information they combine uses past activities, legal records, personal associations, and even ZIP codes to determine the risk that a person will break the law or conduct illegal activity. It's effectively high-tech profiling, and often perpetuates systemic racism.

These data brokers also provide vast amounts of information to the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Agency, which it then uses to target immigrants. This has led to a collective public outrage that has produced petitions, lawsuits, and increased interest in how law enforcement and the government obtain and use data.

Law Enforcement Has Found a Workaround to Data Privacy Laws

Many of us are aware that we, as Americans, have a right to privacy. And there are laws that prohibit law enforcement and government agencies from gathering and using our data under most circumstances. However, these laws say nothing about them buying this data access from third parties.

Since the government isn't collecting and processing this data itself, these agencies can skirt federal privacy laws, operating in a legal gray area.

While we all deserve to live in a safe environment, we also deserve to not have our privacy violated and data used to inform legal opinions about our potential for certain actions.

The Data They're Using Isn't Always Accurate

It's unsettling to imagine that information being used to assess the risk you pose isn't necessarily accurate. It's not just related to law enforcement targeting; it's also related to any legal decisions. Custody decisions, civil suit outcomes, insurance decisions, and even hiring decisions can all be influenced by the RELX-owned LexisNexis system, which gathers and aggregates data.

Unfortunately, there's little recourse for someone who was unfairly treated due to a data-based risk assessment because people are rarely privy to the way these decisions are made. So, a corporate HR manager or Family Court judge could be operating off bad or incomplete data when making decisions that could effectively change lives.

RELX and Thomson Reuters have disclaimers freeing them from liability for inaccurate data, which means your information could be mixed in with someone else's, causing serious repercussions in the wrong circumstances.

In 2016, a man named David Alan Smith successfully sued LexisNexis Screening Solutions when the company provided his prospective employer with an inaccurate background check. LexisNexis failed to make sure that Smith's middle name was the same across all the data, resulting in the reporting of a criminal history that was not his. Smith's potential employer withdrew its job offer based on this report, showing just how significantly bad data can impact someone's life.

Fortunately, the courts held LexisNexis accountable for this gross negligence, but this is not always the case.

How Can We Stop This Misuse of Data?

Because privacy laws are still young and poorly structured in the US, the best recourse is to be knowledgeable and vocal. There are online petitions and organizations that are working to change how law enforcement and legal agencies obtain and act on data.

Hopefully, with enough public support, we can push legislators to act. Every person has a right to be in control of their own data. Any entity that threatens that right should be held accountable, and protections need to be put in place to prevent it from continuing to happen.

About the Author(s)

Arjun Bhatnagar

CEO, Cloaked

Arjun Bhatnagar is the CEO of Cloaked, the consumer-first privacy company dedicated to bringing humanity to the Internet. Over the course of his career, Arjun has successfully started two companies, taught coding at MIT, worked as a partner at a venture firm, and founded a nonprofit dedicated to bringing education to underserved communities. In 2016, Arjun and his brother Abhijay Bhatnagar sold their first startup: Hey! HeadsUp. Arjun understands more than 15 coding languages and is dedicated to making the world a better place through people-centric innovation.

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