Legally Recognizing Digital Human Memory

Or Using Smartphones and Smart Speakers to Solve All Violent Crime

We are at the point, or very near it, that our technology could virtually eliminate unsolved violent crime. For instance, suppose we all constantly captured audio with all our smart devices and uploaded it to the cloud. Our devices could update the uploaded buffer when we log into our devices later and fail to report an emergency1. Unlike biological memory this could be reliably used in court and captured even by murder victims.

Why don’t we use this kind of tech to take a bite out of crime? Well, for the moment it still might strain our bandwidth and storage resources but 5G and ever cheaper storage make this a temporary issue but even people who can afford those resources aren’t so inclined. Now one might think it’s out of fear of technical loss of privacy. What if amazon, google or some hacker figures out how to access our buffered audio?

But that’s not really a convincing worry since it’s pretty easy to secure the buffered audio more securely than our devices themselves are secured. I mean anyone who can hack our cell phones and smart speakers can just enable listening in directly while we could split the secrets to decrypt the audio between multiple big tech companies. The real problem is that we are creating a record that can be subpoenaed and used against us or our intimates without our permission.

What we need to solve this problem is some digital legal analog of biological memory. That is a class of digital records that, like biological memory, need not be produced if the creator chooses not to. Of course, it’s actually a bit more subtle because we can all be compelled to testify but when we do so we not only maintain our 5th amendment protections we can also simply lie or evade. In conjunction this prevents fishing expeditions that a digital record would allow (e.g. I’m sure my husband did something unsavory during the last 48 hours let’s subpoena his audio record so we can use it against him in the divorce).

One possibility is to only use such records as a supercharger for testimony (unless the individual who created it has died). In other words the only access to such data would be by allowing it’s creator to review the tape and indicate what happened in a deposition that would be checked for perjury/accuracy by a third party (special master?) against the actual tape. Maybe it’s not the best solution but we need something that lets us treat our digital memories like our organic ones with respect to our control over their revelation.


  1. One might naturally worry about the friends and family members who commit a great deal of violent crime scheming to impersonate you to clear the incriminating information but if we always keep a sufficiently long buffer so as to make the failure to report us missing during that time suspicious we can at least minimize the risk. 

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Galef’s Unpopular Ideas About Crime And Punishment

Missing from this list is the suggestion that we should be maximizing the economic value of convicted felons by making them use their skills to earn money to be paid to the state and the victim. There was an interesting post about this on econolog not too long ago and while practical considerations may limit the application of this idea I think it is something we should more seriously consider.

I mean a large amount of support for increasingly harsher punishments seems driven not by the idea that it is necessary for ideal punishment but by horror at what happened to the victim. But, to the extent that is true, maybe the victim should get the choice between longer/more extreme punishment and letting the perpetrator work in a more lucrative fashion to better compensate them. True, this would mean that less skilled/educated criminals might get the worse end of the stick but criminal justice is about making the best choice from bad alternatives and if we can better compensate some victims by letting the perpetrator work for more money maybe we should consider it.

Unpopular ideas about crime and punishment

I’ve been compiling lists of “unpopular ideas,” things that seem weird or bad to most people (at least, to most educated urbanites in the United States, which is the demographic I know best). Because my collection of unpopular ideas became so long, I’ve broken it into categories.