Predictive policing

At 7:15 this morning I was rudely awaken by a police SWAT team banging on the door. I’m currently in a cold northeastern city visiting a friend (whom I happened to take to the airport last night to fly to my home state of Florida). He offered to let me stay here for a few days until I return to D.C. It’s a great savings of a few hundred dollars in hotel nights and the solitude has given me an opportunity to concentrate on some much needed work. Of course, solitude is not exactly what I had this morning. First there was a knock. As I peered bleary eyed out the window to see if it was an obnoxious solicitor, the knock grew furious. “Police, Open Up” was the shout. I scurried towards the door in only underwear and a tshirt. I opened it to approximately 10-15 police officers in full gear (bullet proof vest, helmets, guns). I stated to the officer at the door (who clearly recognized that I wasn’t whom they were looking for) that I was a house guest. He showed me a picture and asked if I recognized the man and I said no. He gave me his card and ask me to have the resident (my friend) call him.

I passed the information on to my friend who called the detective and spoke at length. Apparently, this is not the first time his house had been visited by the police. The detective explained that the suspect, wanted in connection with a shooting, and his family were listing this address as theirs. My friend explained that he had been there for 3 months and the owner of the house, who previously lived there, had been there many years. The detective offered to email my friend the picture of the suspect and asked to be contacted if he saw him in the neighborhood.

My friend called me back to discuss the incident and we discussed in light of the book I had been reading the previous day while my friend was at the house. That book was Big Data by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier. Predictive policing, not quite like Minority Report, is the use of big data style analysis for policing. The concept is fairly straight-forword, amalgamate large amounts of information relevant to criminal behavior and find connections that were heretofore unidentifiable. While arrests won’t be made as a result of predictive policing, suspicious actors could be uncovered and scrutinized thereby improving the efficiency of the police department. The risk, however, is having innocent associations place certain members of the population under enhanced scrutiny while others commit crimes. In the old days, this was called profiling and while dispassionate data analysis could be beneficial in removing stereotypes and biases from policing, the risks remains of being caught in a associative bucket of bad guys. My friend, who innocently occupies an address picked by criminals, now potentially will be forever associated with them. Will his car be pulled over more often then not, as police hope to catch him in the act? What other subtle things will threaten his peaceable right to be let alone now? Will credit reporting agencies ding his credit score because he shared an address with a family of criminals?

My ex-girlfriend used to carry her social security card in her wallet, much to my dismay. I pleaded with her not to but her retort was that she had no credit history worthy of stealing so what was the risk? She had a somewhat legitimate need as her drivers license had a different name that her birth certificate, due to custody battle and judges decree when she was just a toddler. She used the SSN as an alternative proof of her name, when her license didn’t match. It is an unfortunately byproduct of living in a society that is hellbent on using identity as a means of security. But the risk to her, were clear. What happens when her identity is stolen for criminal purposes? Or when a criminal uses her identity to commit a violent crime and her name is now tied as an alias to that criminal? While law enforcement making contact with John Smith may do a double take before arresting him on an outstanding warrant, her unique name would not be so lucky.

While efficiencies in the competitive industry of ferreting out criminals is a goal worth pursuing, appropriate safeguards must be in place to not make unwarranted connections. Further, oppression, warrantless searches, identity tattoos (ala WWII germany) make policing efficient but that doesn’t make them ethical. Society must weigh the political repercussions before embarking on the use of big data in this realm.