Pre-crime technology warrants oversight, not fear

On September 15, 2011

The idea of "pre-crime" technology may seem straight out of the 2002 film "Minority Report." However, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, common software used by economists, seismologists and financial analysts are already being used to try to predict crimes before they happen.

These kinds of software take data and find relationships by performing regression analysis, and then assign values to variables, such as probability. Law enforcement agencies using vast amounts of data in a city can find peak hours of crime without a problem. Weather, time and frequency of crimes and disturbances in an area are examples of possible variables.

As early as 2010, the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice began experimenting with data analytic software, such as IBM Blue Crush and Hadoop, to identify "which young offenders are most likely to break the law in the future," according to The Week. Since then, police departments in Santa Cruz, Calif., and Chicago have launched similar efforts to identify peak hours of crime and crime-ridden areas.

SecureAlert, a company that monitors people on parole or probation through "location-reporting" ankle cuffs has taken the technology a step further, the San Francisco Chronicle reported Monday, and "identifies patterns of suspicious behavior" through data analytics. If there is a concern that wearers may be about to commit a crime, SafeAlert workers can call them through a two-way receiver on their bracelet, which can also deliver a piercing screech to warn others around them. This system allows for non-violent intervention, instead of requiring several officers to come to the seen, saving time and money.

If the technology can prevent convicts from breaking parole, then it has achieved its purpose. Those who fear the advancement could lead to totalitarianism should consider how much data can be obtained by the public from Facebook, Google and background checks alone. Anyone who perseveres enough can already legally compile data to analyze any citizen they want. These experiments simply speed up that process to allow intervention before it's too late.

Now that this technology exists, it is impossible to ignore its implications. Banning the use of the software by law enforcement would just result in subsequent outsourcing. Outsourcing the job of criminal predictive behavior to private sector companies that can sell the information for profit offers no guarantee of privacy. The personal information site Facebook has been threatened by "hacktivist" group Anonymous for allegedly selling data to governments across the world, according to geeksyrup.com. It would be better to allow police departments to do their job more efficiently.

We can't ban the use of this technology altogether. It's widespread use in academics and business have already been cemented. Moreover, even our most advanced technology is not infallible. The best we can do is ensure proper oversight over personal information.

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