Tag Archives: inventions

When Innovation Fails: Doing Hard Time in the Offender-Monitoring Business

In Bloomberg Businessweek, Lauren Etter explores another problem with the privatization of law enforcement: technology. From scrambled signals and dead batteries to false violations, the electronic ankle bracelets 3M created failed to protect wearers’ civil liberties even though the process used to design them reflected the company’s way of thinking about innovation and experimentation. Unfortunately, creating monitors for human beings involves higher stakes than yellow stickies.

The sheer amount of data generated by GPS-tracking devices creates problems across the industry and in every state, but the number of alerts in Massachusetts has far exceeded the norm, experts say. Documents reviewed by Bloomberg show that in the 12 months ended in October 2015, 3M bracelets produced 612,492 violation alerts in Massachusetts—more than 50,000 per month, from about 2,800 individuals wearing the devices. Almost 40 percent of the alerts were due to a device not being able to connect to the network or the GPS not being detected. Roughly 1 percent of alerts resulted in an arrest warrant being issued. Tom Pasquarello, former director of the electronic monitoring program for Massachusetts, estimates that half those warrants were potentially based on faulty or incomplete data. That would be roughly 3,000 warrants. “There were people that were pulled from their house in the middle of the night, that lost their kids, people that lost their job,” he says.

The problem of glitchy ankle monitors became so pronounced that the Massachusetts probation department set up an after-hours office in the lobby of a Boston police station so offenders could bring in their bracelets when problems occurred or batteries died. In August 2015, Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Heidi Brieger became so frustrated with the devices that she vowed to stop sentencing anybody to them. “It is simply administratively improper to run a system in this fashion,” she said, according to a court transcript. “We don’t lose liberty in this country because somebody’s software is not working. It just isn’t right.”

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Drawing Parallels Between Elon Musk and the Wright Brothers

There are a number of suggestive parallels between [Elon] Musk and the Wrights, beyond the obvious ones to do with an interest in flight. The [Wright brothers’ father] had very high standards and set no limits on the intellectual curiosity he encouraged in his children; Musk’s father had the same standards and the same insistence on no limits, but was (is) a tortured and difficult presence, ‘good at making life miserable’, in Musk’s words: ‘He can take any situation no matter how good it is and make it bad.’ The Wrights were poorish, the Musks affluentish, but both grew up with an emphasis on learning things first-hand. ‘It is remarkable how many different things you can get to explode,’ Musk says about his childhood experiments. ‘I’m lucky I have all my fingers.’ One very odd thing is a parallel to do with bullies: Musk was set on and beaten half to death by a gang of thugs at his school in Johannesburg; Wilbur Wright was attacked so badly at the age of 18 – beaten with a hockey stick – that he took years to recover from his injuries and missed a college education as a result. His assailant, Oliver Crook Haugh, went on to become a notorious serial killer. Something about these very bright young men set off the bullies’ hatred for difference.

John Lanchester, reviewing recent biographies of Elon Musk and the Wright brothers for the London Review of Books.  

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