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New Weapon Against Crime in the South

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

Crime in the South’s fast-growing cities has a negative affect on economic development and social and community harmony. In Africa, with one fifth of the world’s population, for example, data is very poor on crime and its victims. The absence of good data means prevention and detection of crime is poor, and resources to fight it can’t be allocated effectively.

Over 900 million people – almost a sixth of the world’s population – now live in urban slums (UN) – high-tension places that offer a fertile environment for crime to flourish. In developing countries 43 per cent of urban dwellers live in slums – and in the least-developed countries the figure is 78 per cent. Keeping these areas safe is a serious challenge, especially when trust in police and local authorities is low. People are often afraid of how police will react to reporting of crime. Many rightly believe they will be asked for a bribe, or that reporting a crime somehow singles them out as a troublemaker.

Harnessing the power of people organizing together offers one way of fighting back against crime, and combating the paralysis of feeling there is nothing that can be done. An initiative in Brazil is turning to the powerful collaborative potential of Web 2.0 to track crime and help to solve it. And for the first time in history, Brazilians can now see in more or less real time what crime there is and where it is happening in their country.

Wikicrimes, the brainchild of Professor Vasco Furtado of the University of Fortaleza’s Knowledge Engineering Research Group, is inspired by the very popular user-contributed encyclopaedia Wikipedia, and germinated in his mind while on an academic sabbatical at Stanford University in California in 2006.

Victims of crime can simply map and report crimes using the website, which uses brightly coloured drawing pins to indicate where a cluster of crimes has taken place. Site users answer a series of questions on suspects and witnesses. Anyone planning a journey can then easily zoom in on the places where they will go, and see the crime profile of that area – and perhaps be more cautious and aware to avoid becoming victims themselves.

Brazil’s crime problem is huge: Films like City of God – where gangs fight deadly battles in the slums or favelas – shows how vicious it is.

Wikicrimes, whose motto is “Share crime information, Keep safe!”, began development in April 2006, and went ‘live’ with a launch at the end of 2007. Starting with just two employees, it has now grown to a team of 10.

Furtado was frustrated with police hoarding crime statistics in Brazil, and not letting people know where crimes were taking place: he also believes the police, as in many other countries, manipulate statistics for various political purposes. “The traditional mechanism of data-gathering for which police are responsible ends up giving them a monopoly over the handling of information on criminal occurrences,” Furtado said. And that “is not always in keeping with the precept of transparency and public availability of information required by a democratic system.”

Furtado believes transparent crime statistics are vital to a well-functioning democracy.

“We are still facing very big challenges,” he said. “Cultural change is one of them. We don’t have in Brazil the culture of sharing information for benefiting others. People need to realize that when they register a crime they are helping others, and that should be the reason others will act in the same fashion.”

He tried to get the police involved in the project, by contributing data, but with no luck. Brazil’s police argue their monopoly over crime statistics exists for some very serious reasons. “We are very worried about revealing police data which may restrict the work of the police,” Antenor Martins of Rio’s Civil Police Department told the BBC. “Also we don’t want a feeling of insecurity for the people – they don’t deserve that here or anywhere else in the world.”

Many also worry about a crime profile of an area dragging that area down, scaring people away. The police also worry about inaccurate information. “When people walk into a police station, you sign an incident report. If you give information which isn’t true, you have to respond to charges of giving false evidence,” said Martins.

But Furtado believes trust between citizens and the police is so low, it is hurting the fight against crime.

“The police suffer a lack of credibility among the populace which, in turn, contributes toward the low rate of reporting such occurrences: the so-called underreporting effect,” he said. “Research conducted with victims of crime in several Brazilian states has shown that underreporting may, in densely-populated areas, reach up to 50 per cent for certain types of crimes.”

Furtado believes a better picture of crime will lead to better public policies and policing: “The result of this can be disastrous in terms of formulation of public policies and especially in the planning of police actions, in view of the fact that the official criminal mapping may reflect a trend that is quite unlike what is actually occurring in real life.

“WikiCrimes intends to change the traditional logic of handling information on crimes that have already occurred, and considers that such a change is up to the citizens themselves. It is based on the principle that with adequate support, citizens will be capable of deciding how and when historical information on criminal occurrences can be publicized as well as for what purpose.”

Sao-Paulo-based NGO Sou de Paz works to reduce violence in Brazil, and is a big supporter of Wikicrimes. “If we develop Wikicrimes, we can look at things like domestic violence or information on drug trafficking – things that affect communities but that people don’t report either because of shame or fear,” the group’s Denis Mizne told the BBC. “If you can get access to this information or publicise it together with Wikicrimes, it could help in areas that suffer most from violent crime.”

Wisely, Wikicrimes is acting to address police concerns over accurate reporting of crimes.

“Technically the big challenge is to define mechanisms to identify false registering,” Furtado said. “We are creating fields in WikiCrimes for the user to provide further information that brings more reliability to the crime information registered — links to newspapers, for instance. We are also defining algorithms to compute the reputation of the informants.”

And Wikicrimes is not just for Brazil: they want people from around the world to add to the site and help build up the crime profile of all countries.

Furtado said responses from the general public have largely been positive. “The best I could ever hope,” he said. “The project is for the citizen and I feel that they realize this. Every day, I receive messages from people offering support and giving congratulations.”

“I had no idea of similar projects before doing Wikicrimes, but, recently, I have received some messages of similar initiatives even though with a local scope in Brazil, Argentina and USA,” he added.

“In terms of crime it would be nice if this would show that it’s necessary to publish the crime data that we have in law authorities and institutions,” he said. “If this is a success, I am sure that all the crime data will be available for people, because they will realize there is no way that the authorities can keep it all to themselves.”

Furtado keeps a rolling report on progress with Wikicrimes on his blog.

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By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

Published: May 2008

Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator.  

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False Data Makes Border Screening Corruptible

“Big Brother” system could violate rights of Canada’s visitors

By David South

Now Magazine (Toronto, Canada), May 21-27, 1992

New technology that can spew out a person’s life history in less than six seconds is now available to Canada’s customs and immigration officials.

And while Canada customs and immigration officers say this toy is a boon – replacing the need to memorize names of so-called undesirables – civil rights workers and refugee activists point out that the gizmo could have serious consequences, with little recourse.

The technology is called PALS, or primary automated look out system, and is already in operation at airports in Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, Winnipeg, Ottawa and Vancouver.

PALS’ operation is based on the use of computer-readable passports. Canada is one of several countries that have started including computer strips on passports and identity cards. Officers use PALS by either keying in a special number printed on the passport or identity card or using a scanning machine to read the strip.

The system went into effect at Toronto’s Pearson airport on January 20, after a three-year pilot project in Vancouver, adding Canada to the 11 countries that have machine readers for passports. Under the old system, customs officers combined judgement, questioning and the most-wanted list to decide if a passenger required further interrogation and search.

During a demonstration of the system, customs officials at Pearson airport boast about the system’s role in apprehending a drug smuggler in PALS’ first week of operation.

Sinister sign

But to civil libertarians with experience of such systems in other countries, PALS hasa sinister implication. Many say that PALS spews out what is fed into it. And depending on the country involved, what is fed into it may not necessarily be true.

While customs emphasizes PALS’ role in apprehending popular targets like drug smugglers, terrorists and child kidnappers, its reach also includes people who have smuggled in too many cigarettes or bottles of alcohol, convicted criminals who have finished serving their time, immigrants, refugees and a range of petty offenders.

All of these face a second interrogation and detention based on what their governments have decided to incorporate into the computer strip. And it is this that worries civil libertarians and refugee workers.

Consider the case of a legally sponsored Portuguese immigrant who arrived at Pearson just after PALS had been introduced. He was detained based on information stored in PALS. His immigration lawyer Ali Mohideen recalls how the man was held because of a cheque that he bounced in his native Portugal about eight years ago.

Ed Lam, director of research for the Canadian Ethnocultural Council, feels customs and immigration already have “too many powers.” He regularly receives complaints from visible minorities and immigrants who feel they are singled out for harassment at the airport.

“This is big brother. Legal protection is not enough,” he argues. “It leads to costly court battles with the government. I would like to see an ombudsperson or complaints bureau set up. As for refugees turned back at the border, we will never hear from them.”

False data

Other critics, especially those in the US, where a PALS-type system has been in operation for more than a decade, worry that the system will simply accept information given by tyrannical governments.

“It is hard to trace false information to a foreign government,” says Jeanne Woods, legislative counsel to the American Civil Liberties Union, which monitors abuse under the United States system.

“People have been accused of being communists or terrorists who have denied it. The El Salvadoran government is one example of a regime which has called prominent human rights activists and lawyers terrorists.”

She would like the Canadian Parliament to pass a law similar to one passed last November in the US requiring the state department to report to Congress when somebody is denied access because they have been called a terrorist, so that the origin of the information can be tracked.

“People have been accused of being communists or terrorists who have denied it. The El Salvadoran government is one example of a regime which has called prominent human rights activists and lawyers terrorists.”

The Canadian database draws its information from several sources, according to customs spokesperson Suzanne Bray. The sources include immigration records and the Police Information Retrieval System, which is a database shared between customs and the RCMP.

Bray refuses to divulge any other sources, citing security, but both RCMP and customs operate their own intelligence services, sharing information with their counterparts all over the world, especially the US. Information is also drawn from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and its sister organizations such as the CIA. However, CSIS spokesperson Ray Boisvert says they have adequate safeguards against false information provided by countries known to be human rights abusers.

“CSIS does look at bias in intelligence reports,” he says.

The US equivalent of PALS has been criticized after several cases of abuse were detected. Gara LaMarche, executive director of the Fund for Free Expression, a project of US-based Human Rights Watch, has documented abuse on political and ideological grounds.

“The US public has a right to hear dissenting views under the first amendment of the Constitution,” he says. “I don’t think improving the technology of border control violates civil liberties, but keeping a massive database of information which includes people’s political associations is bad.”

Similar concerns are expressed by John Tackaberry of Amnesty International in Ottawa, which is only now beginning its own analysis of PALS. “We have concerns over data input, who controls information and basic civil liberties.”

Even as Canadian civil rights activists take stock of PALS, Canada customs is planning to use it to check cross-border shopping by expanding the system to all land entry points.

As for those visitors who feel wronged by PALS, they may have a problem seeking redress from such organizations as the Canadian Human Rights Commission. A spokesperson says the CHRC can only help those who have been admitted to Canada. And visitors turned back at the border are not considered admitted.

Sherry Gerstl, a customs superintendent responsible for the implementation of PALS at Pearson, says that people can also appeal to the Privacy Act to see information that is kept on them. But two fact sheets explaining how this can be done are located in a corner, pretty much out of public view.

Bray acknowledges that “honest” passengers could face the prospect of a search with PALS, but given its positive attributes, she says, passengers involved in such delays should simply “grin and bear it.”

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© David South Consulting 2021

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Safety At Stake

By David South

Annex Gleaner (Toronto, Canada), February 1997

Toronto’s innovative crime-fighting and crime-prevention experiments face elimination if and when the city is swallowed up by the monolithic megacity. And the Annex’s status as one of Toronto’s safest neighbourhoods could be destroyed by the resulting tax increases.

Since the late 1980s, thinking about crime in Toronto has focused on public safety rather than just cops in cars. Taking what can be called a holistic approach, the city has poured millions into public health programs, street lighting, safety audits and social services, and it has led the region in putting cops back on foot patrol.

Carolyn Whitzman, coordinator of the Safe City Committee – founded in 1989 and a symbol of that attitude change – worries many of the services will find their funds cut or their street-level approach altered.

“I don’t know if people in Toronto realize how privileged they are,” she says. “All these programs have led us to be one of the safest cities in the world. There is nothing like the Safe City Committee in surrounding municipalities. There is nothing like it at Metro – though they do fund safety initiatives.”

The Safe City Committee was the first of its kind in North America and subsequently has been copied by other cities. Initiatives funded by the committee include pamphlets on ending sibling violence, self-defense tips for volunteer workers, a youth drop-in centre at Dufferin Mall an community safety audits.

Whitzman also worries the new meagcity will follow the advice of government consultants KPMG, who recommended replacing some police duties with volunteer labour.

“They recommended store fronts (community police booths) and reporting of accidents be run by volunteers. What if you want a police officer?”

Whitzman also doesn’t like plans to encourage police to spend more time in their cars filing reports on laptop computers. She would rather see them out on the beat.

She also fears school safety programs, like extra lighting, will be jettisoned as school boards chase savings. This also applies to the TTC and public housing. (Whitzman says some housing projects have already cut security due to provincial funding reductions.)

Another factor could jeopardize the Annex’s status as one of the safest neighbourhoods in the city. Higher taxes may chase out homeowners, and the Annex many once again become a haven for transient populations living in rooming houses, as it was in the 1960s and 1970s.

According to Joe Page, a crime analyst at 52 Division for the past quarter century, the Annex had the dubious reputation in the late 1970s of being the busiest neighbourhood in Toronto for police.

It’s a different story today. For example, in the portion of the Annex between Avenue Road and Spadina Road from Dupont south to Bloor, there was one murder in 1995 and none in 1996, and major assaults were down from nine in 1995 to five in 1996. There was one murder in the Little Italy area west of Bathurst in 1996.

If there is a good side to rising crime rates in the surrounding municipalities, it’s that councillors there can no longer ignore public safety issues. This could mean greater sympathy for Toronto’s plight from once-smug suburban councillors.

Whitzman sees hypocrisy in the attitudes of many of the satellite cities. “Scarborough has a bad reputation and other municipalities are not immune to safety issues.”

Other stories from the Annex Gleaner

An Abuse of Privilege?

Artists Fear Indifference from Megacity 

Will the Megacity Mean Mega-Privatization? 

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© David South Consulting 2021