Scott Crouch stands in front of the audience and describes his time with law enforcement task forces. He recalls his work in the field with police officers, doing ride-alongs and observing criminal activity, and with a rousing call to action, he vows to put an end to the crimes that he witnessed first-hand. But Crouch is not a police officer, detective, or law enforcement official of any kind; he is instead a 22 year-old entrepreneur who studied electrical engineering at Harvard. The people in his audience are not crime analysts, but rather aspiring entrepreneurs at the Harvard President’s Challenge Kickoff. Changing attitudes among tech entrepreneurs and law enforcers coupled with deep advances in technology are ushering in a new generation of crime-fighting startups, placing these engineers at the intersection of two previously disjoint fields.
Coders Turned Cops
Crouch began researching law enforcement software in his junior year of college, after finding a dearth of startups addressing public safety issues. He tells the HPR that he found “software built off of old architectures, old service models, and old business models.” Further, he noticed that “no one [was] really doing much to advance law enforcement software from the entrepreneurial side of things.” Thus Crouch founded Mark43, a startup that develops software to help police officers track criminals. Mark43 recently secured $1.95 million from private investors, a sign of Silicon Valley’s optimism about these new companies.
Crouch is one of only a handful of young entrepreneurs working alongside public safety officials, but interest in the field is growing. On November 2, 2013, Harvard hosted a “public safety hackathon” sponsored by Evidence.com, a startup that helps police store and share criminal evidence within their departments. Tony Huang, one of their business development managers who graduated from Harvard in 2012, organized the hackathon to excite students about the growing applications of technology to law enforcement. He tells the HPR that his job allows him to “use technology to make the world a safer and better place.”
To explain the recent emergence of these law enforcement startups, some cite increasing public frustration with crime response and prevention. Many identify gun violence—especially in the tragic cases of the Navy Yard, Sandy Hook, and Aurora shootings—as the impetus for their innovations. For example, after the Newton shooting, angel investors Ron Conway and Paul Graham were inspired to fund the Sandy Hook Promise Innovation Initiative, which financially incentivizes entrepreneurs to propose tech-based methods of preventing gun violence.
Enforcers Turned Entrepreneurs
The bridge between law enforcement and Silicon Valley is crossed in both directions. Some law enforcement officials are using their experience to create startups and inform innovation. Stacy Stephens began his career as a police officer near Dallas, Texas. He tells the HPR that he began his first foray into the world of entrepreneurship 10 years ago after “identifying areas in law enforcement [in] which technology could be utilized.” Stephens is now co-founder and VP of Marketing and Sales at Knightscope, a young startup seeking to use autonomous robots and big data analytics to improve surveillance.
In developing new surveillance technology, Stephens’ training as a police officer gives him insights that traditionally trained engineers might lack. He told the HPR, “one of the very first things that they teach you [in a police academy] is about the use of force continuum. If you take an empty police car and put it on the side of the road, it immediately changes everyone’s behavior.” Stephens is designing surveillance robots built around this very principle.
Launching a public safety startup without an experienced law enforcement official on board can prove challenging. Through his recent entrepreneurial endeavors, Crouch realized that “it’s not easy to break into law enforcement [when] you don’t have the experience of police officers out in the field.” Fortunately for entrepreneurs, public safety officials seem increasingly open to partnerships with technologists. Crouch describes law enforcement’s reception to Mark43 as “tremendous,” while Huang notes that Evidence.com has received similarly encouraging responses from the law enforcement community.
The Inspector’s Gadgets
Though Mark43, Evidence.com, and Knightscope can all be characterized as law enforcement startups, these companies actually represent three main categories of tech-based approaches to law enforcement: predictive algorithms, streamlining software, and surveillance hardware. Effective predictive algorithms, such as those developed by Mark43, rely on large amounts of accurate data. Before such data can be analyzed, however, it must be cataloged, organized, and stored. These tasks may sound straightforward, but aggregating data from hundreds of police officers who abide by a variety of protocols poses serious technical challenges, which companies like Evidence.com attempt to solve. Finally, startups like Knightscope are developing robotics-based digital surveillance options beyond traditional security cameras.
Speed Bumps and Ethical Blockades
Despite the enthusiasm of students, entrepreneurs, and law enforcement officials, the road ahead is not without obstacles. The technical nightmares of the HealthCare.gov rollout and the public outcry over NSA Internet surveillance have left many civic-focused innovators bruised and skeptical. Huang also sees “a very high barrier to entering the technology space in government.” The sheer infancy of the field provides little direction to those hoping to start their own company.
Moreover, many law enforcement startups are plagued by deeper practical and ethical challenges. Cloud-based software storing evidence and sensitive information can inspire security concerns. Police department databases have been targets of hacking in the past. The Honolulu Police Department in May 2013, the Boston Police Department in February 2012, and a host of others have all been victims of known successful attacks. In each instance, personal data was stolen, including credit card numbers, citizen complaints, and criminal information. A centralized database of evidence and personal information from a number of police departments would be an obvious target for hackers with similar motivations.
Additionally, predictive crime algorithms have an array of associated concerns. First, the factors used to develop the algorithms could be ethically problematic. Possible inputs to the algorithm, such as race, age, or income, could inspire the same variety of controversies as New York City’s “Stop and Frisk” and Arizona’s SB 1070. Neighborhoods that statistically experience more crime would be deemed “hotspots” for criminal activity, potentially resulting in a disproportionate number of arrests.
Finally, robots and other surveillance technology raise questions of privacy and ethics. A national poll by the Washington Post and ABC News in July 2013 found that 74 percent of Americans felt the NSA had violated their right to privacy. As the controversies surrounding the NSA continue, public sensitivity to governmental surveillance remains on the rise. In light of these concerns, entrepreneurs developing surveillance technology may find fundraising challenging and public support scarce.
The ethical and practical concerns surrounding law enforcement startups are daunting, but they should be seen as a speed limit rather than a stop sign. The energy and enthusiasm expressed by entrepreneurs, investors, and law enforcement officials are sufficient to propel the field forward. Huang believes that “everything is really coming together” and hopes that events like the Harvard public safety hackathon will catalyze the process. If these trends continue, more students like Huang and Crouch will soon be spending time in the Silicon Valley Police Department.