We no longer need the mutants from Minority Report to predict crime

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Your every step, conversation, purchase, or website visited is recorded and available to anyone who succeeds in accessing your file. But more important than this data is the information that can be deduced from it. Are you nineteen and owe money, do your Facebook friends include drug dealers, and do you stop at an empty parking lot on your way home from the club at night? Then maybe it’s time to preventively bring you in.

Such calculations, performed using ever more sophisticated artificial intelligence, form the foundation for what is called predictive criminology – pre-crime. In recent years, this concept – which the author Philip K. Dick first used in his 1956 story Minority Report – has moved from the realm of dystopian fiction and into living reality. Unlike Dick’s story or the more recent film it inspired, we no longer need intelligent mutants to predict the future. By analyzing data from a wide range of sources (friends’ Facebook networks, crimes committed in various part of the city), the police can easily predict in which neighborhood a crime is about to occur and who might be planning it… and thus where to send a patrol car right now.

The effectiveness and ethics of pre-crime are more than questionable, as Monika Hielscher and Matthias Heeder’s documentary Pre-Crime eloquently shows. The filmmakers set out to learn about predictive policing in London, Chicago, and Berlin, and quickly discover that, like any other system, pre-crime fails primarily because of the human factor.

Working with inaccurate input data, the computer’s list of potential criminals includes a disproportionate number of young people from ethnic minorities or ghettoes, which only increases their social exclusion and sense of frustration. When the police pound on your door once a week because they have come to preventively inspect you because of a computer algorithm, this doesn’t exactly instill you with much faith or trust in the government. What is more, it is difficult to see into the workings of artificial intelligence, and so we are often left to guess why someone ended up on a list.

Pre-crime successfully ensured safer streets and allows for the more efficient use of police resources. But is also shows how a seemingly neutral technology reflects various racial and class prejudices or political agendas without being subjected to any democratic control mechanisms. Political thinking common to foreign anti-terrorist operations pushes aside legal principles and changes the division of power. Crimes cease to be prosecuted after they happen, but are seen as possible future threats that must be eliminated preventively. The twisted ideas of 19th-century criminology are making a comeback, and people become criminals not on the basis of their actions but because of their natural predisposition, background, lifestyle, and place of residence. And just as with anti-terrorist operations, critics of pre-crime warn that it often creates its enemies instead of getting rid of them.

The document Pre-Crime is included in the One Zero category, which focuses on the stories of people caught in digital networks – from celebrities to Tibetan monks. Oscar-winning director Laura Poitras, following up on her portrait of Edward Snowden, takes viewers to the hideaway of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (Risk). Another controversial celebrity and documentary subject is Kim Dotcom, the founder of Megaupload (Kim Dotcom: Caught in the web). The films deal also with the various ways in which internet content can be used and misused – by people who work as censors on social networks (The Cleaners) or activists fighting against data manipulation (Black Code). These sometimes surprising, sometimes frightening stories point to the complex duel between the real world and the cyber world. Score: one zero. But who is winning?

Matouš Hrdina, Czech Radio – Radio Wave. The text was originally prepared for the Respekt magazine.


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