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ARTIST'S STATEMENT

Yes, of course this product isn't real. Don't get me wrong, I built one. It works. The pictures are real, the technology is real, and the accessories, unfortunately,
could be real.

I created the iSrch Rndmzr 3000! after a
friend of mine tweeted about the Boston subway (MBTA) starting up their "random" (and constitutionally questionable) searches of riders again. Since then, I have personally seen them in action at several subway stops.

MBTA Police officers stand at a table and occasionally beckon (or, in some cases, escort) passengers to the table where the passenger's bags and parcels are laid open, emptied, and searched. (Searches of the individuals themselves, and their clothing, are thankfully still prohibited without probable cause - which can be obtained via the bag search.) Potential riders are welcome to decline to be searched, but they will not be allowed to enter the subway. This was challenged in court in several places across the US, but the
decision seems to be that random searches are allowed as long as they are truly random (not targeting races, genders, etc.) and that the service to which access may be denied is not deemed "essential" (apparently transit system access is not essential).

What I dislike the most about this is the uselessness of the searches and the false "security" the program provides. Supposedly the searches are to keep potential terrorists off the subways. It seems to me, however, that the searches are geared toward finding small-time offenders (mostly drug offenders, I would think) and making oblivious riders of the subway somehow feel safer. I'm certainly skeptical as to how effective the searches are at finding potentially ill-willed individuals. The very fact that anyone can refuse a search and simply leave the station seems to preclude any chance of catching an individual with anything truly incriminating on their person. (NOT, mind you, that I would have it any other way.)

What also irks me about this system is the amount of power the officers have in these situations - and their ability to abuse it. Everyone has biases and even those who recognize this about themselves cannot completely control it all the time. Officers will employ racial, gender, and other stereotyping regardless of their intentions. Random is not random. I have seen one - only one - white male being searched at these locations and, so far, not a single female. (My direct observation is limited, I'm not saying the profiling - intentional or otherwise - is this strong in Boston, but so far I have seen a 4 to 1 ratio of non-white to white searchees and a 5 to 0 ratio of male to female.)

The iSrch Rndmzr 3000! is an attempt to show that there are ways in which this idiotic system could be improved to, at a minimum, remove or minimize the officer's bias. Through the use of a very inexpensive device (the prototype cost less than $60) employing off-the-shelf and readily available technology, a truly
random selection of individuals for these searches could be obtained. It doesn't help the lack of utility that these searches provide, but it at least stops some level of persecution. (Alternately, software could be developed to carry out this same purpose on a number of readily available devices - some of which may already be carried by some agents.)

However, as we see over and over again, it is difficult (impossible?) to deploy a complex, technological solution to what is really a social problem without the solution being subverted in ways large and small. The accessories page offers a few glimpses into ways that something like the iSrch Rndmzr 3000! could be subverted. I'm sure that, if given the opportunity, many agencies, organizations and individuals could add to this list indefinitely - which is why I encourage
suggestions for further accessories.

This is an issue we should talk about - and an issue that the agencies involved should be totally and completely transparent about - so that we as a city and society can make a decision about whether this is really the way to keep people safe. I believe that hard, data-backed statistics should be released immediately by all agencies conducting random searches. Those statistics should, at a minimum, include the number and demographic data of those searched, the number of individuals detained, convicted, or fined as a result of the searches, and, most importantly, the reasons for those actions.

I think we would all be surprised by just what those statistics hold. The only reason an agency has not to release such statistics would be if the programs aren't working. There's simply no other argument that holds up.

~w

W. Aaron Waychoff
May, 2009

Interesting Links:

Refusing searches in the DC Subway
My blog
My consulting website