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The Ethics of Digidog

photograph of german shepherd next to surveillance robot dog

On February 24, the New York City Police Department employed a robot “dog” to aid with an investigation of a home break in. This is not the first time that police departments have used robots to aid in responding to criminal activity. However this robot, produced by Boston Dynamics, and affectionately named “Spot,” drew the attention of the general public after New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted a critique of the decision to invest money in this type of policing technology. While Digidog’s main purpose is to increase the safety for both officers and suspects during criminal investigations, some are concerned that the implementation of this type of technology sets a bad precedent, contributes to police surveillance, and diverts resources away from more deserving causes.

Is employing surveillance technologies like Digidog inherently bad? Is it ever okay to monitor citizens without their consent? And which methods should we prioritize when seeking to prevent or respond to crime?

In the United States, an estimated 50 million surveillance cameras watch us, many escaping out notice. The use of these surveillance cameras, formally called Closed Circuit TV’s (CCTVs), have dramatically expanded due to the interest in limiting crime in or around private property. Law enforcement often rely on video surveillance in order to identify potential suspects, and prosecutors may use this footage as evidence during conviction. However, there has been some debate about whether or not the proliferation of CCTV’s has really led to less crime, either through deterrence or through successful identification and capture. This lack of demonstrable proof of positive effect is especially concerning given the pushback against this type of surveillance as potentially violating individuals’ privacy. In a 2015 study by Pew Research Center, 90% of Americans ranked “not having someone watch you or listen to you without your permission” as very important or somewhat important. In a follow-up question, 2/3 of respondents ranked “being able to go around in public without always being identified” as important. Considering the clear importance of privacy to many Americans, increased surveillance might be considered a fundamental infringement on what many see as their right to privacy.

Digidog is a police surveillance tool. Equipped with a camera and GPS, the robot dog is capable of allowing officers to monitor dangerous situations without risking their lives. However, many are skeptical that Digidog’s use will be limited only to responding to crime and could soon instead become a tool to patrol the streets. In one particularly alarming example, an MSCHF Product Studio armed their robot dog with a paintball gun and demonstrated how easy it was to shoot the gun from a remote location. If police departments began arming these robot dogs, the potential for violence and brutality stands to increase. As yet, these uses have not been explicitly suggested by any law enforcement agency, and defenders of Digidog point to its limitations, such as its maximum travel speed, usage in many fields other than policing, and its lack of covert design. These features suggest that Digidog is not yet the powerful tool to patrol or surveil the general public that critics fear.

In terms of Digidog as an investment to combat crime, is it an unethical diversion of money, as Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez has suggested? In the past year, calls to decrease or reallocate police funding have entered the mainstream. The decision to invest in Digidog could be considered unethical because its benefits to the public can’t justify its significant cost. Digidogs themselves cost around $74,000 each. Considering that they are only intended for use in extreme and dangerous situations, their usage is rare, and they do not appear to improve the life of the average individual. However, by serving as a weaponless first responder, Digidogs could save both the lives of officers or those suspected of engaging in criminal activity. Human error and reactivity can be removed from the equation by having robots surveil a situation in place of an armed officer.

Whether or not the Digidog represents an ethical use of public funds may turn on the legitimacy of investing in crime response rather than crime prevention. As previously noted, “Spot” is primarily used to respond to existing crime. Because of this, critics have suggested that these funds would be better aimed at programs that seek to minimize the occurrence of crime in the first place. Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez’s tweet, for example, makes reference to those who suggested resources should go to school counseling instead. In fact, some criminology experts argue that investing in local communities and schools can drastically decrease the incidence of crime. Defenders of Digidog are quick to point out that the two goals are not mutually exclusive; it is possible to invest in both crime response and crime prevention, and we need not pit these two policy aims against one another. It is unclear in this situation, however, whether similar funds were directed at preventing crime as were spent in purchasing Digidogs.

This investment in Digidog could also be seen as unethical not just in terms of its lack of efficiency in addressing crime, but also in terms of the lack of similar treatment in other areas of social concern. In a reply to her original tweet, Ocasio-Cortez retorted “when was the last time you saw next-generation, world class technology for education, healthcare, housing, etc. consistently prioritized for underserved communities like this?” In a time when so many have called to defund the police following centuries of police violence against Black people, it seems an affront to invest money in technologies designed to aid arrest rather than address systemic injustice. Highlighting this disparity in funding shows that urgent social needs are being unjustly prioritized last. Again, defenders of Digidog might respond that this comparison is a false one, and that technology can be employed for both policing and social needs.

Together, these concerns mean that Digidog’s usage will continue to be met by skepticism, if not hostility, by many. As police and surveillance technology develop, it remains especially important that we measure the value these new tools offer against their costs to both our safety and our privacy.

The Immorality of Nonhuman Police Officers

Police officer on horseback. Both horse and person are shown from behind

The number of non-human police officers currently in the United States is not known. 

Although law enforcement dogs and horses are routinely featured on departmental social media pages and in pop culture, the Bureau of Labor Statistics only tracks human employment data; this means that the 665,000 police and sheriff’s patrol officers counted in May of 2019 (and the over 423,000 additional correctional officers at that time) were all our fellow mostly-hairless bipeds. In 2010, the secretary of the North American Police Work Dog Association made a “wild guess” that more than 50,000 canines were being actively used by law enforcement officers of one kind or another; the higher costs of caring for horses means that their numbers have always been much lower by comparison, with many large cities maintaining a mounted police force numbering in the dozens, largely for reasons of pageantry and public relations.

However, to be precise, the first sentence of this article is incorrect: because only humans can be real police officers, the canine or equine law enforcement population is, technically, zero. Although police animals are often described and honored as full representatives of the organizations that own them, they are not literal members of the police force and are not obligated to carry out the duties of such an office. Dogs do not swear oaths to protect and serve their communities; horses are not licensed agents of the state. Police animals are police property, which is why their mistreatment is prohibited by the “Malicious Mischief” section of the U.S. Code that protects government-owned assets.

Although the motivation for police using non-human animals might be understandable, it poses several significant ethical questions that should be ignored.

Typically, police departments use dogs and horses in three basic ways: as shields to preserve the well-being of police officers, as devices to accomplish technical goals, and as props to bolster positive publicity. As the American Kennel Club describes, K-9 units are frequently “the first ones to put their lives on the line and go in against an armed suspect to protect their human partners;” in this way, police animals are essentially fuzzy versions of kevlar vests. In the second case, and perhaps most famously, dogs and horses are deployed as organic devices that perform tasks like detecting illicit substances or blocking pedestrian traffic; by co-opting the unique abilities of their species, police departments literally instrumentalize non-human animals as a standard operating procedure. But, most notoriously, the optics of cute and cuddly creatures are a powerful tool for manipulating public opinion about police behavior — so much so that Ray Allen Manufacturing, a leading provider of equipment for police K-9 units, explicitly discusses “public relations” as a key element of their marketing strategy.

Each of these uses is, at best, ethically dubious. Intentionally endangering the lives of innocent creatures is often taken as a paradigmatic example of immoral behavior — one that is only compounded by the fact that their training regimens make police animals place themselves in harm’s way. Regardless of the affection or honor shown to them during or after their deaths, insofar as these animals are taught to prioritize the interests of others over their own, they are subject to a kind of “bad faith” and are thereby prevented from being the sorts of creatures that they would otherwise freely be. (One might almost call them something like four-legged “serious men” in Beauvoir’s sense!

Moral philosophers disagree about the propriety of animal husbandry as a whole: some argue that labor-extraction from non-human animals is always, in principle wrong; others say that it is at least possible for humans to ethically benefit from animal labor under certain conditions, chief of which requires the constant protection of the animals’ welfare. Either way, it’s far from clear that what is good for a dog involves being able to identify the scent of cocaine or that a horse’s own good includes being able to march in formation in a city’s parade. 

Finally, the exploitation of public affection for non-human animals to parasitically improve popular opinions of police departments seems to be a text-book example of propaganda with all of the questionable moral baggage attached to such a practice. And even if such emotion-manipulating effects are engendered unintentionally, their real-world consequences (in matters like policy support and voting behavior) nevertheless demand our attention. 

Ultimately, it is true that many police animals enjoy their lives in the company of attentive care-takers (though a surprisingly large number of counterexamples exist), but Christine Korsgaard points out at least one more relevant difference between police officers and the animals they own: dogs and horses cannot choose to become police animals, but must always be drafted across the thin blue line. Although every single police officer currently serving does so voluntarily, the same cannot be said about any of their animal “partners.”

So, as the national conversation continues to focus on the immorality of many policing practices and the need for widespread policy change, the role of non-human animals within police departments deserves a portion of that attention as well.