Minority Report wasn’t a great movie, but it did get people talking about what might happen if we actually could predict who was going to commit a crime, perhaps even before the future-perp knew it was going to happen. The movie packaged this possibility in a far-fetched way, involving a hot tub full of comatose people with pre-cognitive abilities plugged into an elaborate pinball machine. How silly.
Thing is, the hard working folks at IBM didn’t think it was so silly. Rather than a mere Hollywood fantasy designed to stoke our fears, predicting crime had “profit center” written all over it for the technology behemoth. Its Analytics Division has spent more than $12 billion in research and development to gin up a marketable crime prediction software package–and they’ve managed to do exactly that. Here’s a quote from Deepak Advani, vice president of ‘predictive analytics’ at IBM:
Predictive analytics gives government organizations worldwide a highly-sophisticated and intelligent source to create safer communities by identifying, predicting, responding to and preventing criminal activities. It gives the criminal justice system the ability to draw upon the wealth of data available to detect patterns, make reliable projections and then take the appropriate action in real time to combat crime and protect citizens. Gizmodo, April 14, 2010
The first major government customer for this software was the Ministry of Justice in the United Kingdom, and now IBM has found a big U.S. customer in the Florida State Department of Juvenile Justice. The Department will reportedly use the software to predict which wayward youngsters will commit the next crime, so “interventions” can be implemented post haste.
This story isn’t going to end well. It begins with statements like the one above from Mr. Advani, peppered with phrases like “detect patterns” and “make reliable projections”–the sorts of phrases that seem from the get go to promise an eventual infringement of rights, and the inevitable royal screwing of the innocent.
If you have any doubt just how big a business IBM intends for this to become, check out these numbers from Yahoo Finance, no doubt pulled directly from an IBM press release:
IBM has assembled 4,000 analytics consultants with industry expertise, and opened a network of seven analytics centers of excellence. Today, IBM is working with more than 250,000 clients worldwide on predictive analytics, including 22 of the top 24 global commercial banks, 18 of the world’s top 22 telecommunication carriers and 11 of the top 12 U.S. specialty retailers. Yahoo Finance, April 14, 2010
My reaction to where this all will go is similar to that of Gizmodo writer Jesus Diaz, who sums it up well:
First it’s the convicted-but-potentially-recidivistic criminals. Then it’s the potential terrorists. Then it’s everyone of us, in a big database, getting flagged because some combination of factors—travel patterns, credit card activity, relationships, messaging, social activity and everything else—indicate that we may be thinking about doing something against the law.
Once we get into the business of “predicting” what people will do (for the sake of security, of course) and taking action based on the prediction, we’re on the path to denial of personal liberty. It’s not a question of if this will happen, but when it will. And I can’t help but find the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice’s use of the system as especially alarming, since the records of those in its sphere of influence could be forever tainted by information that they have the analytically validated potential to commit a serious crime. “Hey kid, you’re an official security risk for the rest of your life! Good luck with that.”
Add to all of this the potential for abuse of such a system, and there’s more than a little in this news to spark concern in the hearts of the reasonable.