Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Conference Recap: Police Symposium on New Technologies

After the recent wave of calls for highly interesting events, it's about time for some original stuff! So here's a brief recap of a conference I attended last week - and this one was in fact quite different from the regular academic experience, which makes it all the more interesting. The federal law enforcement agencies of Germany, Switzerland and Austria, as well as the "Landespolizei" of Bavaria organized a tri-national conference on "new technologies" which was held in the VIP lounge of the Berne hockey stadium. This year was in fact the 4th edition of the event, setting the scope on ubiquitous computing (find the agenda here). But of course it was all about Big Data - surprise!

I had been invited to talk about ethical considerations of Big Data practices, but basically the conference was all about exchange between police, (academic) research and development and representatives from the industry (IBM, Oracle) on how Big Data could be used in the best ways possible for the sake of security. And here we are right in the middle of the surveillance studies agenda, of course. Just to give you some brief examples: Julien Cartier and his team presented their work on how to secretely install hidden applications on smart phones for the purpose of tracking and recording outgoing and incoming calls, text messages (including Whatsapp and Skype), as well as location data - coming to the conclusion that Android devices are far more vulnerable for such attacks than devices with iOS and Windows Phone.

live demonstration of augmented reality

And Uwe Vogel presented a "Interactive See-Through Head-Mounted Display by Bi-directional OLED-on-Silicon Microdisplay" which appeared as some middle ground between Google's Glass and "Terminator Vision" - basically augmented reality, but with the possibility to execute commands just by looking at the virtual buttons in front of you, made possible by the device's constant tracking of the user's eye movement. During the live demonstration, this feature actually worked quite smoothly.

Scary? Well, given how representatives from the industry enthusiastically described all the possible applications of such technologies in the security sector, the answer would be yes. However, as became clear from several conversations over lunch and dinner, police practitioners expressed a surprisingly healthy skepticism towards all those fancy new possibilities. Might have been their utterances had been biased by the fact they realized they talked to the "ethics guy", and might have been the regular, sugar-coated conference small-talk, but I got the personal impression that the industry is making a far greater push into new technologies and Big Data than the police is ready to buy into right now.

However, I would still remain reluctant to draw overly optimistic conclusions here. Police, research and development, and the industry remain inextricably interlinked (which in fact is of course rather a historical continuity than a new insight), and technologies of surveillance and control remain high on the agenda (which was emphasized during the conference time and time again), thus reinforcing a security agenda that nowadays goes by catchphrases such as "intelligence-led policing" and "hot-spot policing". On the other hand, though, the event provided some welcome personal insight into rather reasonable approaches of law enforcement folks to technology. It will be interesting to see how things progress...

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