big data 4 computer generated man

The idea of people being routinely arrested for a crime they have not yet committed may seem a little far-fetched to some.

Afterall, if you have not done anything wrong, you have nothing to fear right? But imagine a scenario where several armed police officers kick down your door at 3am in the morning. You are then arrested on suspicion of plotting to kill your partner. You are taken down to the police station and questioned after a police supercomputer estimated that you were about to commit a crime.

Sounds like something right out of Minority Report doesn’t it? The movie depicts a society in which predictions seem so accurate that the police arrest individuals for crimes before they are committed.

But what if it I told you that such a scenario wasn’t fiction and that the government in conjunction with law enforcement were working towards a plan to bring that about? You’d think I was crazy right? A little paranoid perhaps? Wrong. Welcome to Big Data. Big Data is coming to a station near you and FAST.

FAST is the acronym for the Future Attribute Screening Technology, coined by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

This technology is one of the many applications that comes under the umbrella of ‘big data’ which tries to identify potential terrorists by monitoring individuals’ vital signs, body language, and other physiological patterns.

It is defined as a collection of data obtained from a variety of sources such as sensors which are then used to gather climate information from social media sites, pictures, videos, DNA, financial, educational and medical records, as well as mobile GPS data, to name but a few. These are then collated into one program to determine statistical information and make predictions about future events.

The idea behind the new technology is to monitor a person’s behaviour patterns in order to predict whether they are likely to cause harm. The Department of Homeland Security claim that these tests are 70 per cent accurate.

In fact, Science Spokesman John Verrico, said of the project: “We are running at about 78 per cent accuracy on mal-intent detection, and 80 per cent on deception.”

According to Verrico, FAST has been through stringent privacy controls (pdf) and the data is never matched to a name. They claim it is only used to make decisions about whether to question someone, and then discarded. But of course if it is used as a basis to ‘question’ someone, then it is matched to a name.

While this idea is still in its early phases, there are signs that law enforcement both in the US and UK are already making use of it.

For example, police in Santa Cruz have been using it to predict when a crime is likely to be committed and have made arrests on the basis of the data fed back to them through their computer program.

It is known as predictive policing and is documented as part of an ongoing trial by police from Santa Cruz and Los Angeles. But that model has now been trialled by police forces here in the UK.

In a press release published online, Kent Police revealed that they are piloting a predictive policing scheme to identify crime hotspots. They have been working with police departments across the USA, such as the Los Angeles Police Department, who they claim have successfully implemented predictive policing. They are also working with professor Jeff Brantingham, who is also vice chair of the Department of Anthropology, at the University of California.

Predictive policing works on the principles that individuals, areas and whole groups and races of people can be targeted because an algorithm apparently shows that they have a higher propensity towards crime.

In fact, the applications of big data have already been used within the prison system where parole boards use predictions founded on data analysis to decide whether to release somebody from prison or to keep them locked up.

Areas with a large number of ethnic minority groups may also be targeted based upon statistical analysis and big data applications. This was highlighted in 2010 after the European Court of Human Rights overturned a ruling introduced by the coalition government which specifically allowed stop and searches to be conducted on the basis of colour. This was justified on the basis of crime statistics which showed that there was a higher incidence of crime in deprived, urban areas where larger concentrations of black and asian people live.

The DNA database is also another example of how big data, is now used not only to solve crimes but also to extract detailed information about a person’s medical history, familial roots and prospects in life, under what is called “predictive medicine”.

So the question remains. Do predictive policing models and big data statistics potentially have sinister applications which outweigh its benefits to society?

Proponents argue that the use of big data can help police to solve crime better and make society a safer place. They claim that it can also be used to improve the quality of life of people in a country and offer more targeted services, in the medical sector, for example.

However legitimate concerns are raised at a time when certain groups within society are already targeted by the police and government institutions, whether through documented use of police brutality, stop and search, or the denial of healthcare by insurance companies. In that sense, the use of big data to “predict” a person’s propensity towards crime and ultimately to penalise them before anything is proven, leads to a very slippery slope indeed. It could also provide a very convenient and more effective way for rogue governments to lock up critics and activists, under anti-terrorism laws or similar legislation, but without having to back it up in any way.

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