Feb 23, 2019 I Brett Tingley

American Police Are Secretly Testing ‘Minority Report’-Style Predictive Policing

The era of Big Data and ubiquitous surveillance has been upon us for some time. All of our daily activities, shopping habits, whereabouts, social relationships, and more points of data are logged on various servers around the world for government agencies and private entities alike to sift through, analyze, and preserve. Who knows what else could be hidden in the massive and sophisticated data trails we leave behind each day? Our most secret, innermost desires that we ourselves aren’t even aware of yet? Fears, hatred, and biases we didn’t know we had?

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You can keep secrets from yourself, but not from your data.

Who knows. There could be artificial intelligence algorithms out there that know you much better than you know yourself. What would happen if one of these decided that even though you’re a perfectly calm, law-abiding citizen today, you might one day pose a danger to yourself or others? Would it be ethically acceptable to arrest someone based on a prediction about their future behavior?

Those are questions many law enforcement agencies around the United States are currently exploring in secret. Motherboard published a report this week outlining how police in dozens of American cities are experimenting with PredPol, a “predictive policing software” ripped straight from the pages of Philip K. Dick’s 1956 short story "The Minority Report." Motherboard obtained documents showing that at least 25 different police departments throughout the U.S. are testing the PredPol system’s ability to forecast crime much in the same way meteorologists forecast the weather, but the full extent to which this system is being implemented is still unknown.

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"My precogs tell me you have about ten years left until you start thinking about robbing a bank to pay your student loans. Enjoy your freedom while you can!"

PredPol purports to be able predict crime in specific 500-foot by 500-foot sections of a city using existing crime data dating back up to a decade. While many critics have pointed out that PredPol represents a terrifying new slippery slope towards arresting perfectly innocent people, its defenders say the system is only intended to help police decide where to best allocate their officers and resources based on existing crime data. So far, PredPol has been tight-lipped about how widely used its system is, referring all requests for information to individual law enforcement agencies themselves.

While that sounds all well and good, it’s easy to see how such a system might evolve. If - or perhaps when - private individuals’ social media histories and mobile devices’ location tracking data are incorporated into these predictive policing systems, we may begin to see the type of “precrime” arrests foreshadowed in “The Minority Report” become a reality. Should we turn public safety over to the machines? Will AI be able to do a better job than human police officers?

It’s never too late to give away all of your mobile surveillance devices and move to Alaska to live off-grid. The precogs are coming.

Brett Tingley

Brett Tingley is a writer and musician living in the ancient Appalachian mountains.

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