Procedural Fetishism - Traps That Distract from Important Decisions

This year’s Lithuanian Criminologists’ Association conference focused on the changes brought by new technological solutions in crime control, punishment, and the work of law enforcement agencies. The event, held on April 19 at the Vilnius University Library’s Scientific Communication and Information Centre, was abundant not only in participants but also in speakers from the field of technology, who are less commonly seen at such conferences.

Among the invited guests at the plenary session was Monika Žalnieriūtė, a researcher at the Law Institute of the Lithuanian Centre for Social Sciences. Her presentation, “Institutional Power, Technology, and Procedural Fetishism,” intrigued attendees even before it was delivered.

“Procedural fetishism,” according to the researcher, “is a phenomenon where attention is focused on procedural elements. Procedures are certainly necessary,” continued M. Žalnieriūtė, “but sometimes they distract us from more important issues.”

As an example, the speaker highlighted the problem of facial recognition technologies (hereinafter - FRT), which are widely used in airports, hospitals and so on. In one Chinese city of more than three million inhabitants, institutions can locate a person within seven minutes. This was proven possible even if people are wearing masks, as the recent pandemic has proven. On the other hand, intensive use of FRT in protests may violate people’s equal rights before the law. There are municipalities in the US that prohibit the use of facial recognition technologies in city centres or similar areas, but in reality, according to the researcher, this field is poorly regulated. “Then the question arises, do we want free city streets and squares, or do we want more security?” M. Žalnieriūtė asked the attendees.

According to the researcher, large corporations are using various means to distract the society’s attention from the process of concentrating power in their hands by offering us to work on micro-elements. As a result, societies are not talking about fundamental aspects, such as, do we really want facial recognition technology to be used in city squares? Therefore, it is very important not to lose sight of the main question among the many small elements that prevent from seeing the big picture. If this is not prevented, mass surveillance could become a common phenomenon. Therefore, society and activists must constantly bring these important issues back to decision-makers.

Answering the question “What should be done?”, the researcher first pointed to the incredibly increased powers of private businesses. “They can already influence national elections, which would have significant consequences for various regions,” said M. Žalnieriūtė. Therefore, she suggested that the technical infrastructure should be decolonized, thereby reducing their concentrated powers. In order to democratise them, councils could be introduced to help oversee the provision of their services, which could already be equated to public services.

In conclusion, the researcher emphasised that procedural fetishism is very dangerous because when it prevails, problems are discussed neutrally. The focus is on finding small agreements, but very important questions are not being addressed.


Dr Monika Žalnieriūtė is currently leading the project funded by the Lithuanian Research Council “AI in Courts: Challenges and Opportunities” (TeismAI).