The issue of security or privacy is a concern as the revelations of computer technologies to pursue suspected criminals is widely used in the U.S. criminal justice system. Criminal justice actors, including police, attorneys, judges, and correctional professionals, employ technological tools such as electronic surveillance, facial recognition, thermal imaging, and data analytics and mining technologies to access information about suspected criminals and terrorists. The computer technologies used to access personal data have raised a number of ethical issues.
The National Security Agency (NSA) has come under scrutiny for violating the privacy of U.S. citizens by using computer technology to access the telephone and personal data stored in the digital databases by telecommunication companies. Using computer data for matching suspects to a crime or law violation is not a 21st century phenomenon, however. In fact, there are historical accounts of computer matching during the draft era, as vehicle registration data of 18to 21-yearolds were matched to military registration lists for possible “dodgers”; and the 1984 Deficit Reduction Act that required federal agency elimination of waste, fraud, and abuse in delivery of public services resulted in computer matching of welfare benefit recipients to medical records of deceased persons. What is of concern is the surprising amount of personal data and information available and accessible by such government programs as the NSA’s PRISM, which partnered with Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Skype, YouTube, Apple, and Dropbox, for the possible retrieval of private electronic data—pictures, e-mails, and file transfer protocol (FTP) information. Agencies using matching technologies to achieve the goals of criminal apprehension, conviction, and corrections in a cost-efficient and effective manner were accused of giving too little attention to potential violations of privacy rights and civil liberties. Computer matching technology is in wide use by police, the courts, and corrections professionals, which are mandated to manage and operate databases of digital information considered to be private and secured by trustworthy and ethical law enforcement personnel.
Computer Matching Technology and Criminal Justice Ethics
Computers, or automated databases, records, digital materials, are used to match personal information and evidence for comparison and identification of criminal acts and actors. For instance, digital information was shared by law enforcement inter and intra-agency, nationally, and internationally for expediency with identification and apprehension of the Boston Marathon bombers. Computer matching and accessing personal data by governments, NSA PRISM, or law enforcement have implications for violating the privacy rights of law-abiding citizens and criminal offenders. The privacy issue for law enforcement professionals relates to the ethical rules of professional conduct and integrity while on the job and interacting with criminal suspects, victims, and citizens and third-party groups in the community.
The use of information technologies is commonplace in modern justice administration to facilitate the sharing of information about suspected criminals, defendants, and inmates in prison or jails; and yet, there is still high regard for the expectation of privacy. George Orwell’s book Nineteen Eighty-Four was a postwar treatise on individualism and diminishing protections of privacy as governments empowered justice agencies—courts and police—to conduct surveillance and warrantless search and seizure of evidence that may be used in a crime. In 2011, Congress reauthorized provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act that raised concerns about collection, dissemination, and sharing of private information about those suspected to be involved in terrorist acts against the United States. The critical issue of balancing the rights of the suspects/ defendants and maintaining law and order and public safety is central to ideas about the benefits of computer technologies used to match the crime event to the lawbreaker.
Law Enforcement Advantages
Perhaps nowhere are the issues of ethics and privacy of the accused, defendant, and incarcerated tested as in the practice of employing computer technology in crime control and prevention. Despite fears of diminishing constitutional privacy protections, computer matching has been favored to help fulfill the mandate of law enforcement—maintenance of order and public safety. Examples include the use of computer matching of medical data to identify victims of the 9/11 terrorist event, round-the-clock surveillances, wiretappings, as well as statistical logarithms for detection of white-collar financial crimes.
Using computer matching technology to redress violations against victims and society may be tolerated and aligned to ethical standards. The ethics rules that govern police, attorneys and judges, and corrections professionals are to ensure integrity of criminal justice personnel while engaged in the execution of agency mandates: Police honor the Fourth Amendment search, lawyers and judges are respectful of legal guidelines for sharing information about defendants, and correctional professionals demonstrate integrity and privacy protections of incarcerated persons guaranteed by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPAA) regarding the use of electronic medical record information. Moreover, The Computer Matching and Privacy Protection Act of 1988 outlined the policy and legal procedures for computer matching for federal criminal justice agencies and clarified the due process protections for individuals pursuant to the U.S. Constitution.
Ethical issues abound as law enforcement begins the process of technology integration, thus taking advantage of computer technologies as the means to catch criminals and terrorists. Guidance from data integrity boards is meant to ensure appropriate agreements for sharing information and legal counsel regarding digital crime records and files within/across jurisdictions.
The expectation of privacy and due process rights for individuals guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution are central to the arguments for legal rules and policies imposing security and safeguards for accessing digital intelligence. The scrutiny of the NSA PRISM program reflects commonly held ethical values regarding privacy when using the modern computer, telephone, or any electronic and telecommunications device. The accountability standards governing law enforcement, legal and court actors, and correctional professionals are a reminder that retrieving, sharing, and utilizing domestic/foreign intelligence and personal data collected by governments is for protection against threats.
Safeguarding data in commission of work means reflecting the ethical rules and standards enshrined in the law in retrieving, disseminating, comparing, and sharing personal data with/ without permission. Examples of ethical violations include haphazard use of information, fishing expeditions, law enforcement malfeasance and violation of Fourth Amendment protections, prosecutorial misconduct based on retrieval of tainted information, or failure to notify criminal offenders under correctional supervision of record sharing with unauthorized parties.
The U.S. Department of Justice manages the Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section (CCIPS), which outlined procedures for implementing an effective crime-fighting strategy to control and prevent cybercrimes. Cybercrime control involves lawyers working on international and national technological and legal networks used by criminal offenders. As such, this activity could potentially provide criminal hackers with illegal access to data and computer matching of crimes to suspected offenders and could result in wrongful incarceration. As criminal justice administration progresses toward using electronic data and information as part of the crime control and prevention strategy, caution and attention to ethical rules and legal policies are essential so that actors do not ignore constitutional protections.
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- Serr, John. “Great Expectations of Privacy: A New Model for Fourth Amendment Protection.” Minnesota Law Review, v.73 (1989).
- Shattuck, John. “In the Shadow of 1984: National Identification Systems, Computer-Matching, and Privacy in the United States.” Hastings Law Journal, v.35 (1983–84).
- Thompson, L. “Why NSA’s PRISM Program Makes Sense.” Forbes (2013). http://www.forbes.com/sites/lorenthompson/2013/06/07/why-nsas-prism-program-makes-sense (Accessed May 2013). U.S. Department of Justice. Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section Act. http://www.justice.gov/criminal/cybercrime (Accessed June 2013).
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