First, we had suspects

First, you had a suspect; then you collected data

You used information from that crime to make a list of possible suspects. And then you looked into their life. Maybe you did this with publicly accessible information, by digging through their trash. And maybe you got permission from a judge to wiretap their phone communications.

Homer’s got a point: do the easy stuff first.

Today, you have data, and find suspects

Today, the order’s reversed. The easy thing to do is suck up all the data. The harder work is making a case from what’s found. As citizens, we lead our lives in public, leaving a breadcrumb trail of our movements, purchases, interactions, and political thoughts.

  • Its algorithms shit where they eat. Software that predicts where crime will occur can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. When more police patrol a hotspot, they make more arrests, which lowers property values, which makes it harder for a healthy community to thrive because of a drop in tax revenue.
  • It suffers from reporting bias. If you leave a mattress out on the street in the rich Oakland Heights area, everyone calls the authorities. If you leave one out in the poor parts of Oakland, someone takes a nap. So the source data is questionable in the first place.

Collecting data is easy

When Yahoo let the government search for specific strings within emails, they were supporting the collect-and-find-suspects premise. Given a flood of data coming into a system, it’s easy to look for a particular piece of text, then form a list of possible suspects. And at first blush, it might seem like a decent precaution when faced with the asymmetric threat of terrorism, particularly if you’re privileged and think you have nothing to worry about.

  • Searches aren’t crimes. When breast cancer patients searched for medical information, their searches were treated as adult content, because the word “breast” was being broadly interpreted as smut. Even the decisions about what to block are weirdly subjective.
  • All talk, no action. Those who discuss terrorism are probably more open about doing so than the actual bad guys, who (presumably) take steps to hide their actions.
  • Political winds change quickly. A decade after the Russians were America’s allies in World War II, US citizens were being blackballed from jobs and society for consorting with people from the Soviet Union.

A computer is better than you at recognizing things

Computers are already really, really good at image recognition. 2012 was a milestone in image detection, because that’s the date when computers became better than humans at recognizing objects. And the thing about computers is they can work tirelessly, in parallel, and they get better the more they work.

Have you seen this man?

When computers watch movies for us

Kyle McDonald took NeuralTalk, a neural network that performs image recognition, and ran it on a backpack computer that interprets, in real time, everything he showed it on a camera as he walked around Amsterdam.

Most tourists in Amsterdam look like this anyway.
The other British Broadcasting Corporation: It’s people (or its people).
You know you’re in there.

Tomorrow, you’ll have history, and find data targets

What happens when we ask a computer to look through all available footage and identify scenes of possible crimes being committed? What tough-on-crime candidate wouldn’t get behind such a scheme? And will the apparent commission of a crime be considered sufficient justification for a background search, or further investigation?

CCTV graffiti, via Wikipedia



Writer, speaker, accelerant. Intersection of tech & society. Strata, Startupfest, Bitnorth, FWD50. Lean Analytics, Tilt the Windmill, HBS, Just Evil Enough.

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Alistair Croll

Alistair Croll

Writer, speaker, accelerant. Intersection of tech & society. Strata, Startupfest, Bitnorth, FWD50. Lean Analytics, Tilt the Windmill, HBS, Just Evil Enough.