In search of wrongdoing

Thursday, July 28, 2016
by Cameron Shelley

One important means for enforcing rules of conduct is to allow police to search for evidence of violations.  Search can take many forms, as recent examples illustrate.

In the upcoming Rio Summer Olympics, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) will be searching for evidence of gene doping.  Gene doping is the insertion of genes into a body's cells in order to modify their behavior for the purpose of enhancement (as opposed to gene therapy, which is done to restore health).  

Gene doping might take the form of infecting athletes with viruses altered to deliver certain genes into their bodies, genes that make their cells produce more EPO, for instance.  WADA might examine blood samples for evidence of such viruses, such as antibodies.

This form of search is interesting because it is entirely proactive.  There is no evidence that athletes are engaged in gene doping.  Indeed, it is considered to be highly unlikely because the practise is potentially quite dangerous.  To tolerate the doping virus, an athlete's immune system would have to be suppressed, an extreme health risk.  

Still, with evidence of systemic doping programs in Russia and elsewhere, WADA and the IOC want to appear out in front of the problem, and they now have the technological means to conduct this sort of search.

Authorities in Rio will conduct searches of the city from above using a balloon-based surveillance system known as Logos.  A system of cameras mounted on these balloons will provide detailed coverage of sensitive areas of the city.  

Originally designed for the US military in Iraq, the system has been made affordable to police forces with special security needs.  It can be used to monitor ongoing activity to look for suspicious patterns, or to "rewind" through previous recordings to trace movements after the fact.

Whether or not such a system is legally permissible depends on jurisdiction and circumstance.  Jay Stanley, an analyst with the ACLU, says that the system would like be considered too invasive for regular use in the United States.  Its use might be considered an unjustified search under the Constitution.

Of course, that could change depending on how much people feel that public order is threatened.

In non-Olympic news, police in Michigan have used facsimile fingerprints to search the smartphone of a murder victim.  Such devices often use biometric identification such as fingerprints to secure access.  

State police approached Anil Jain of Michigan State University with the phone, hoping he could use his expertise in 3D printing to whomp up a fake finger to use to unlock the device.  In the end, Professor Jain was able to use special software and printers to make a 2D facsimile that did the trick.

Police were then able to search the phone for evidence related to the murder.

These examples illustrate how search is used by authorities to police the rules and how technology shapes what searches are possible or socially acceptable.