Geofencing and Investigatory Datasheds

There’s a lot to write about “geofencing” as a law enforcement practice, but, for now, I’ll just link to this piece in the New York Times about the use of device-tracking in criminal investigations.

There, we read about something called Sensorvault: “Sensorvault, according to Google employees, includes detailed location records involving at least hundreds of millions of devices worldwide and dating back nearly a decade.”

To access Sensorvault, members of law enforcement can use a “geofence warrant.” This is a hybrid digital/geographic search warrant that will “specify an area and a time period” for which “Google gathers information from Sensorvault about the devices that were there. It labels them with anonymous ID numbers, and detectives look at locations and movement patterns to see if any appear relevant to the crime. Once they narrow the field to a few devices they think belong to suspects or witnesses, Google reveals the users’ names and other information.”

In other words, you can isolate a specific private yard, public park, city street, or even several residential blocks during a particular period of time, then—with the right warrant—every device found within or crossing through that window can be revealed.

To a certain extent, the notion of a “crime scene” has thus been digitally expanded, taking on a kind of data shadow, as someone simply driving down a street or sitting in a park one day with their phone out is now within the official dataprint of an investigation. Or perhaps datashed—as in watershed—is a better metaphor.

But this, of course, is where things get strange, from both a political and a narrative point of view. Political, because why not just issue a permanent, standing geofence warrant for certain parts of the city in order to track entire targeted populations, whether they’re a demographic group or members of a political opposition? And narrative, because how does this change what it means to witness something, to overhear something, to be privy to something, to be an accomplice or unwilling participant? And is it you or your device that will be able to recount what really occurred?

From a narrative point of view, in other words, anyone whose phone was within the datashed of an event becomes a witness or participant, a character, someone who an author—let alone an authority—now needs to track.

(For more thoughts on witnessing, narrative, and authors/authorities, I wrote a piece for The Atlantic last year that might be of interest.)

Mars P.D.

[Image: Illustration by Matt Chinworth, via The Atlantic].

Last summer, I got obsessed with the idea of how future crimes will be investigated on Mars. If we accept the premise that humans will one day settle the Red Planet, then, it seems to me, we should be prepared to see the same old vices pop up all over again, from kidnapping and burglary to serial murder, even bank heists.

If there is a mining depot on Mars, in other words, then there will be someone plotting to rob it.

But who will have the jurisdictional power to investigate these crimes? What sorts of forensic tools will offworld police use to analyze Martian crime scenes contaminated by relentless solar exposure, where the planet’s low gravity will make blood spatter differently from stab wounds? Further, if there is a future Martian crime wave, what sort of prison architecture would be appropriate—if any—for detaining perpetrators on another world?

Over the long and often surreal process of researching these sorts of questions, I spoke with legendary sci-fi novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, with Arctic archaeologist Christyann Darwent, with space law expert Elsbeth Magilton, with astrobiologist and political activist Lucianne Walkowicz, with political theorists Charles Cockell and Philip Steinberg, and with UCLA astrophysicist David Paige. All of them, through their own particular fields of expertise, helped chip away at various aspects of the question of what non-terrestrial law enforcement.

Incredibly, I also met a 4th-degree black belt in Aikido named Josh Gold who has been working with a team of advisors to develop a new martial art for space, rethinking the basics of human movement for a world with low—or even, on a space station, no—gravity. How do you pin someone to the ground, for example, when is no ground to pin them on?

In any case, will we need a Mars P.D.? If so, what exactly might a Martian police department look like?

The full feature is now up over at The Atlantic.