This episode of Radiolab discusses the contentious use of aerial surveillance to solve crimes in cities like Dayton, Ohio and Juarez, Mexico. Shoutout to Shilpi Kumar for sharing this with me.

Two things jumped out at me during this episode.

First is the distinction that the advantages of such a system are easy to quantify - reducing certain crimes in Dayton by 30% was one such advantage - but the disadvantages are much more difficult to quantify.

This thought wasn’t expanded upon, but I think it’s worth exploring in greater depth. In this specific case, the disadvantages are unknown, but likely very real. How can you quantify the value of privacy? That said, refusing to make a decision due to an externality being unquantifiable seems foolish. There needs to be some attempt to quantify the previously unquantifiable to make a more informed decision possible.

There is a precendent of this being done in a related field. The RAND Corporation released a Cost of Crime calculator that calculates the total social costs of crime in dollars (paper here). While not a perfect measure of the true costs of crime, these values can help law enforcement agencies more objectively prioritize crime prevention1.

If a similar “Cost of Privacy” calculator existed, it would be possible to have a more objective debate about the merits of - in this specific case - aerial surveillance. A quick Google search lead to this report by the RAND Corporation about the costs of heightened security to the UK public. While there is no calculator for the specific security initiatives, there are three scenarios presented with a measure of the public’s tolerance for heightened security at the cost of personal privacy. Each scenario resulted in different tolerances, which suggests the public would support some policy changes that increase security at the cost of privacy but reject others.

Itemizing these different policy changes and scenarios, and calculating the likely societal costs, would help create a more realistic picture of the cost-benefit analysis of aerial surveillance, as well as other proposed security policies.

The second thing that caught my attention was the confirmation that selling new technology to governments is hard. Persistent Surveillance, the company discussed in the episode, has proposals out to over 100 law enforcement agencies around the world, but none of them are willing to purchase due to privacy concerns from the public, despite proving incredible reductions in crime and literally shutting down a drug cartel through use of the system. Persistent Surveillance is now using its system to analyze traffic while they wait to hear back from law enforcement agencies.

In defense of the government agencies, they have a responsibility to serve and protect the people in their jurisdictions. If those people are sufficiently divided on the adoption of a technology with unclear costs to society, then abstaining from adoption can make sense. One of the key lessons here is that it’s often not enough to create an effective solution for a particular problem, especially when government is involved.

  1. A prioritization would likely want to include an assessment of the department’s ability to prevent a crime. It might not make sense to direct all police resources to homicide prevention if there’s a low likelihood that such efforts could prevent the crime, even if it has the highest social cost. This is not an original thought - the crime forecasting product I work on, HunchLab, takes this efficacy metric into account before making forecasts for risky crime areas.