Tech lowers costs. It won’t just lower the cost of policing; it will lower the cost to defend against policing.

Criminals and non-criminals have different reasons to want this but both probably will want it and will have the same broad needs: protection from surveillance and enforcement of norms. This article is about norms; camouflage is more the realm of CV experts = not my area.

Norm vacuum

My most common police interaction is the TSA. For a while every time I flew I got searched, and so I read up on the law here and tried to develop a patter to control the situation. I wasn’t successful.

Conversations I’ve had:

  • ‘Can I record this search / if you turn that on we’ll arrest you for eavesdropping’. (This was in an airport in Illinois with zillions of cameras, no expectation of privacy by anyone, and it was an interaction that I was a party to).
  • ‘Am I under arrest or am I free to go / if you don’t submit to a search we’ll arrest you / arrest me for what / tresspassing’ (this went on for an hour, I missed my cousin’s wedding)
  • ‘Why are you calling the bomb squad / you tested positive for accelerant / is there any other explanation / you could have been on a freshly fertilized lawn’. (In this one I was instructed to submit to a ‘private room crotch rub’)

Also one time I got a ticket for switching cars on a (stopped) subway. The conversation then was ‘show us your ID / am I under arrest / we’ll arrest you if you don’t show us ID’.

Scripting is collective action to disrupt authority

My point isn’t that these conversations are against the rules. I don’t know the rules, some of what the cops said is potentially wrong, and these interactions are happening hundreds of times a day with no record. I’ve always wanted an audio-recording panic button so these conversations would be on the record. Even better would be cheap, live advice, or some sort of ‘choose your own adventure’ script.

The script would act as a ‘norm wizard’, guiding me through the situation, letting me know when I was in uncharted territory, and telling me when my counterparty breaks a norm. I’m saying ‘norm’ not ‘rule’ because these norms don’t have to come from the government – whatever private party created the wizard would have tremendous influence. Police haven’t been willing to publish sane scripts for these situations; whoever does so will have a lot of power to shape the boundaries.

If you’re an agency that employs law enforcement officers and someone asks ‘are there limits to your authority’ and you say ‘not really’, you’re creating a ‘norm vacuum’.

Private groups like the ACLU will be able to disrupt this agency’s self-assigned absolute power. They’ll fill the norm vacuum with tools like panic buttons and arrest scripts.

(I’m not a lawyer).

The law depends heavily on precedent and the concept of a ‘reasonable person’. If the ACLU (or whoever) builds a vast library of precendent through civilian panic cameras, and derives from it a script which reasonable people follow, we’ve checked both boxes.

The goal here is to use technology to restore government (small G) ‘by the people’ in these ubiquitous, stressful, unsafe administrative interactions. Enlightened despot Joseph II was all in on ‘government for the people but not by them’. Maybe we can be past that now.