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A Crime-Fighting Police Tech 'Accelerator' in Edmonton Has Activists Worried

A partnership between police, venture capitalists, and big business wants to solve crime and social problems with technology. Activists and experts say it’s not that simple.
June 3, 2020, 5:21pm
Edmonton police
Police in Edmonton performing a noise check on a motorcyle. Photo via The Canadian Press

Police in Edmonton have partnered with a venture capitalist to fund tech entrepreneurs to come up with “solutions” to crime and social problems, using sensitive data collected from the healthcare system, social services, and police.

But as protests continue across the U.S. and Canada following the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis last week, activists are raising concerns that the project could entrench systemic racism and further marginalize people of colour and Indigenous peoples in Edmonton.

Edmonton Police Service Chief Dale McFee and Ashif Mawji, a venture capitalist and chair of the Edmonton Police Foundation, say the goal of the Community Solutions Accelerator (CSA) is to save public money by privately funding entrepreneurs to address tough problems such as addiction and homelessness.

McFee and Mawji say the accelerator will help businesses create products to be used by police and social services in the field, such as artificial intelligence software that could predict who will go missing, or an app that would let police do on-the-spot mental health evaluations. The CSA will then sell the products to other cities.

To help startups bring these and other ideas to life, the CSA will pool sensitive information about Albertans from health care, child welfare, social services, and policing databases and provide it to entrepreneurs to get creative with. Mawji has said that the most sensitive data will only be handled by police who will “anonymize” the data before giving it to businesses.

Activists and privacy experts say the accelerator, launched in February without much fanfare, will affect the lives of vulnerable communities without giving them a say in how their information is being used.

“We’re talking about police using this information without any responsibility to the people the (data) is talking about or impacting,” said Miranda Jimmy, co-founder of RISEdmonton, a group pursuing Indigenous reconciliation in the city.

“Policing has a history of treating Indigenous people and people of colour differently. Now they are arming themselves with information about people that can be skewed in favour of (police) and allow them to justify their actions.”

Jimmy says expressions of racism and police brutality aren’t limited to the use of physical violence.

“It's the systems of oppression, the racism and bias that exists in the targeting of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of colour) communities by law enforcement. It's the ongoing over representation of marginalized people in the justice system. It's the profiteering and benefiting from those who don't have the means to stand up for their own rights,” Jimmy said.

Bashir Mohamed, an Edmonton-based writer whose work focuses on the history of discrimination in Alberta, says the CSA could contribute to overpolicing of marginalized groups.

“Certain demographics will be disproportionately represented (in the data) and, as a result, disproportionately surveyed,” Mohamed told VICE. “If you want to solve a social problem then it is not by overpolicing—it is via alleviating social problems such as poverty, addiction, and systemic racism.”

A 2018 VICE investigation found that Black, Indigenous, people of colour were disproportionately represented in cannabis possession arrests in Edmonton. A CBC investigation in 2017 found Indigenous and Black people were far more likely to be subject to police street checks in the city, but those findings were later disputed by an independent report.

The CSA is owned by the Edmonton Police Foundation, of which Mawji is chair. Partners of the project include Motorola, Telus, and ATB Financial. The Globe and Mail says the companies will provide funding, IT infrastructure, technical support, research expertise, marketing, and mentorship to funded entrepreneurs.

But private businesses are not subject to the same level of scrutiny as public institutions, and police services and businesses have different priorities that can be difficult to reconcile, experts say.

“Police have a particular duty to the people they are paid to protect; we grant them exceptional powers and their use of the powers we grant must be accountable. Businesses, on the other hand, are accountable to their bottom line… it’s a very tricky balance to ensure public accountability” in public-private partnerships, said Brenda McPhail, the director of the Privacy, Technology & Surveillance Project at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA).

A first project launched through the CSA is the “Liquor Store Theft Challenge” funded by Alcanna, Alberta’s largest liquor retailer. The challenge promises up to $250,000 to whoever can figure out how to stop liquor store robberies in Edmonton. One of Alcanna’s goals through the challenge is to “support and encourage the justice system in imposing consequences for these criminals once caught.”

Jimmy says that even if data used in projects funded by the CSA is truly anonymized—something experts say is next to impossible to do—it will still paint an unrealistic picture of communities.

“Police profiling, whether in this aggregate sense or in a direct sense, (can) justify further marginalization,” Jimmy said. “The people who are making these decisions are not the ones most impacted by them.”

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