All the Traffic Cop’s Spies

According to The New York Times, New Delhi’s traffic police have waded into Government 2.0 territory, adopting Facebook to garner public participation.  Its Facebook page began much like domestic Government 2.0 sites in asking the public for its views and suggestions.  But people didn’t just comment on policy.  Instead, they provided real-time information on drivers who violated traffic laws.  In just two months’ time, the site attracted over 17,000 dutiful fans who have posted nearly 3,000 photographs and dozens of videos of traffic infractions.  Fans posted pictures of people on motorcycles without helmets, drivers talking on cellphones or taking illegal turns, and improperly parked vehicles.  With the license plate numbers captured on pictures and videos, police have been able to issue 665 tickets. New Delhi’s Joint Commissioner of Traffic, Satyendra Garg, explained that the city’s Facebook profile never asked people to report traffic infractions.  In this way, the Facebook page was an unexpected boon given that New Delhi has 12 million residents but only 5,000 traffic officers.  Garg underscored that “Traffic people can’t be present everywhere, but rules are always being broken.  If people want to report it, we welcome it.  A violation is a violation.”

For the most part, federal, state, and local Government 2.0 sites have not yet been used to crowd source information for law enforcement.  Police departments do, of course, routinely infiltrate criminal networks by friend-ing suspected conspirators under assumed names.  Intergovernmental fusion centers collect and analyze publicly-available social media data. Yet government has rarely enlisted (or inadvertently received) the public’s help on law enforcement matters in Government 2.0 efforts. Police in Baker, Louisiana seem to be a rare exception: they sought tips on the police department’s Facebook page by posting a photograph of a truck involved in a theft.

What are some of the benefits and costs of using Government 2.0 sites in this way?  As highlighted in a prior post, Lior Strahilevitz’s important article ‘How’s My Driving’ for Everyone (and Everything?) contemplated the social welfare gains arising from technologies that allow people to report driver misconduct.  As the article highlights, the virtual anonymity of drivers magnifies dangerous behavior on the road because drivers neither suffer social disapproval for their actions nor fear getting caught.  As Strahilevitz astutely predicted and as the New Delhi Facebook page shows, technology can help police combat dangerous driving, reduce information assymetries in the insurance market, and alleviate drivers’ feeling of helplessness in the face of reckless and dangerous behavior on the road.

At the same time, the practice raises serious concerns.  Drivers who use their cell phones to take pictures of other drivers run the risk of violating the law themselves.  Many states ban cell phone use while driving.  While trying to help police catch others breaking the law, drivers could of course get distracted and endanger pedestrians and other drivers.  Moreover, citizens might upload doctored photographs to avenge a personal conflict.  They could report erroneous information. In turn, incorrect information could be integrated into law enforcement databases to individuals’ detriment.  They might be used to issue tickets or arrests.  To be sure, these concerns could be safeguarded against with accountable and transparent practices.  But we need to start thinking hard about Government 2.0’s privacy concerns (see Fulfilling Government 2.0’s Promise With Robust Privacy Protections): there are upon us.

Hat Tip: The title of this post is a riff on the title of Jon Michaels’s superb piece All the President’s Spies: Private-Public Intelligence Partnerships in the War on Terror

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