Balancing safety with privacy in prison: should 'smart' technology monitor inmates?

Nila Bala, an expert on criminal justice policy, argues that we ought to proceed with caution when it comes to implementing 'smart' technology in prisons.

AI surveillance is not a solution, says criminal justice policy expert

Should inmates in prisons be monitored by AI-driven cameras, even in their cells? (AP Photo/Rebecca Boone, File)

Artificial intelligence has great potential to help with all sorts of aspects of our lives – smart homes, cars, workplaces – but can AI help improve our prisons?

Nila Bala is the associate director of criminal justice policy at the R Street Institute and a former public defender in Baltimore. She recently wrote about how China and Hong Kong have started incorporating new tech to create "smart" prisons: AI-augmented cameras programmed to identify "abnormal behaviour," Fitbit-like devices to monitor inmates' every move, and even robots that will search feces for drugs.

Nila Bala

"The idea would be to enable constant, complete surveillance in a way that humans guards simply can't actually do, and make prison breaks or escapes a virtual impossibility," Bala told Spark host Nora Young.

When it comes to North America potentially adopting such technologies, Bala notes the pros and cons. "The potential is certainly more secure facilities. The technology could also be used to guard the guards. It could help to stop corruption, bribery and abuse."

However, Bala flags that facial recognition technology, as it stands now, is not reliable enough to be used behind bars. "Unless we can say that facial recognition technology can reliably identify people, as a baseline measure, than using it as in a wholesale method behind bars is not a good idea."

Yet, even if the technical issues can be solved, Bala says that it would still represent an unprecedented invasion of privacy. "We have to ask ourselves, what are we hoping for upon re-entry," she said. "If we subject people to surveillance that we would otherwise never tolerate for ourselves on the outside world, and make that the new norm, I think we have to ask what that does to the mental and human psyche, and what the long term cost could be to that kind of treatment."

Ultimately, Bala argues that we ought to proceed with caution. "We might just be asking too much of the technology too soon, and that we really should think about the problems we are having with mass incarceration and try to fix them as a society rather than expecting technology to fix them."


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