Forecast | Predicting crimes before they happen: Future of policing P4

Whether in the real world or online, planning and executing crimes successfully by the late 2030s will demand so much time, expense, and brainpower that future criminal masterminds may ultimately realize they are better off making their money the honest way. That's been the theme thus far in our Future of Policing series. We've covered how emerging technologies will make everyday life safer while making it ever more difficult for criminals to make a dishonest living. 

However, what we left out is that these future crime-fighting technologies are designed to combat crime as it happens or catch criminals faster after the fact. In this chapter, we'll explore emerging tech that's designed to prevent crime altogether. 

Using social media to predict crime

More than any other medium in history, social media's ability to build communities is unprecedented. And a part of its magic is the connections made on social media platforms oftentimes extend into the real world, exposing individuals to relationships far outside their traditional network. However, the darker side of this medium is that it also enables individuals with criminal intent to find each other, collaborate, and even incite violence onto others. 

For this reason, police departments and intelligence agencies are shifting considerable resources to monitor public social media feeds. Their computers analyze the billions of public posts made each day, looking for patterns and context within the keywords people use, and reporting any suspicious communications. When a person of interest is identified—an agitator of some kind with influence other others—it's not just their posts that these police agencies zero in on, but also who engages with those posts and who is directly connected to said agitator. Should this group, this community that this agitator belongs to, say or share anything that could lead to criminal activity, then police agencies will secure a warrant to arrest them before their words can turn to actions.

While this sounds good in theory, in practice, social media monitoring is already helping US police agencies monitor and collect evidence against inner city gangs. In the Middle East, it’s helping the Israeli government crackdown on Palestinian incitement that leads to murders of Jewish civilians. And in China, where the state has direct control and access to the data collected from its domestic social media platforms, it’s helping the Communist Party monitor its people and intervene in local disturbances before they can become regional protests and uprisings. 

Mining your phone’s metadata

As the Snowden Leaks revealed, the government is after more than just your social media posts. 

Whenever they can get away with it, governments will spy on their people as a means of securing their population against dangers (both real and perceived), as well as a means to secure themselves from their own populations (China, North Korea, Iran, etc). And luckily for governments, spying on entire populations has never been easier. The reason? Metadata. 

Metadata is data about data. It's new insights gleaned from various data sources. And governments horde a treasure trove of such data about everyone, including you. 

Consider this: Governments collect visual data on you through CCTV cameras. They collect speech data on you by recording your phone conversations. They collect written data from your texts and your emails. Relationship data from your social networks and phone call logs. Interest data from the websites you visit and the images you share online. Location data from the cell phone you carry in your pocket. The list goes on.

Even if governments only had limited access to all these records, it would be more than enough to paint a reasonably accurate picture of who you are, who you associate with, and most important, what you're planning in the near future. 

Future police supercomputers will crunch all this information to develop real-time threat profiles of every citizen within its mandate. Individuals whose metadata profile indicates they are a high risk to their community will be monitored local police and, in some cases, proactively arrested. 

Crime stats leading us to toward the era of pre-crime

For many reading this chapter, the seminal sci-fi film, Minority Report, was likely the first memory that came to mind when considering the concept of predicting crimes to prevent them. In the film, a specialized police department in the year 2054 arrested criminals based on predictions made by three psychics called precogs.

While today’s psychics can’t predictably forecast crimes, Silicon Valley’s digital wizards are offering today’s police departments the next best thing.

Modern supercomputers and advanced statistical algorithms have given rise to what computer scientists call "predictive analytics software." In the context of policing, this software collects years' worth of crime reports and statistics and then combines it with real-time variables, such as the occurrence of entertainment events, traffic patterns, the weather, and more. What it generates from this data is a city map, overlaid with various markers and stats, that indicate the probability and type of criminal activity likely to occur at any given time, in every part of the city.

Using these insights, police are deployed to those city areas where the software forecasts criminal activity. In the emerging crime forecasting field, this is called establishing "predictive policing zones." By having more police patrolling statistically proven problem areas, police are better positioned to intercept crimes as they happen or scare off would-be criminals altogether. 

Today, police departments throughout the US, and increasingly throughout the developed world, are actively using this software to help them more efficiently and cost-effectively allocate their officers. Moreover, these police departments are reporting significant declines in criminal activity, anywhere between 10 to 30 percent drops in crimes such as burglaries, carjacking, and drug trafficking. 

When metadata is combined with mind reading tech

In chapter three of our Future of Law series, we discussed the introduction of thought reading machines into the legal system by the mid-2040s. While this tech will have profound ramifications on how courts operate and how innocence and guilt are proven, it will have an equally profound impact on how we forecast crime.

Should the government collection of massive metadata hordes continue, alongside the steady growth of predictive analytics software, thought reading tech could be that missing piece of the puzzle that puts Minority Report’s crime forecasting precogs to shame. Consider this scenario: 

  • By the late 2040s, laws are passed stipulating that all criminals must hand over the contents of their online profiles, must have their psychological profiles assessed by psychologists, and must have their thought profiles documented by thought reading machines.
  • After a few years, once all existing and new prisoners have been assessed, their digital, psychological, thought, demographic, and criminal records will be shared with the national criminal investigations supercomputer.
  • The thought profiles of millions of prisoners will be analyzed and statistically modeled against their public metadata with the goal of isolating a collection of detailed criminal profile types. In other words, the computer will create a series of archetypes that possess a certain set of attributes that predict a certain level of criminal inclination.
  • These criminal profiles will then be compared against the profiles of every citizen in the state (again, taking advantage of the government's metadata trove about its citizenry).
  • Should the computer find a match between the metadata profiles of individual citizens and its metadata criminal profiles, it will then alert the police or intelligence agencies.
  • Those individuals whose metadata profiles show a high match with criminal profiles will then find themselves under police surveillance and investigation without their even knowing about it.
  • Should the police’s investigation uncover criminal activity or intent, then said person—who may never have been discovered otherwise—will be arrested, potentially before they even commit a crime.

All-in-all, while this sophisticated level of criminal forecasting may yet be a few decades away, the underlying concepts and technology that will one day make it a reality are already being developed and used by police departments and intelligence agencies around the world. At this point, local detectives and spymasters are all playing a waiting game for computers, artificial intelligence, and brain science to catch up to their Big Brother, pre-crime busting ambitions.

Future of policing series

Militarize or disarm? Reforming the police for the 21st century: Future of policing P1
Automated policing within the surveillance state: Future of policing P2
AI police crush the cyber underworld: Future of policing P3

Likelihood of happening rating 
Massive (5/5)
importance rating 
Moderate (3/5)
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Next scheduled update for this forecast
March 1, 2021. Last updated March 1, 2019.
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