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July 01, 2016
The future of predictive policing: Balancing prevention with privacy
By: Allan W Fairley

The ability of the police to identify crime before it happens was taken to extreme lengths in the film Minority Report, based on the short story of the same name by Philip K. Dick. In it, three unique "Precogs" have the ability to detect a murder before it’s committed enabling police to make an arrest and conviction before anyone is killed. The film raises some tough moral and jurisprudential questions. Of course, this is science fiction. But nevertheless, the combination of the evolving nature of crime today, with much of it happening online, and the finite resources that the police have to address it, is starting to raise some very similar, and challenging, ethical considerations.

“Police need to bear in mind the
ethical responsibilities that accompany
advances in technology.”

Today’s approach to addressing cybercrimes and other serious crimes instigated online is to seize suspects’ digital devices and subject them to painstaking forensic examination. But this is time-consuming and costly. The result is a significant backlog. Attention is therefore shifting to finding ways that the police can intervene much earlier in the commissioning of a crime to predict and prevent criminal activity. But as they explore these new approaches and methods, the police need to also bear in mind the ethical responsibilities that accompany advances in technology.

The present state of prediction

For example, predictive analytics can interrogate data and, with a reasonable degree of accuracy, predict individuals who are likely to commit a particular type of crime. Armed with that knowledge, forces can put measures in place that can prevent the crime from materialising. Another example is a product called FaceWatch. This uses facial recognition and video analytics to identify known offenders. It can be deployed to provide retailers with the intelligence to spot known shoplifters who may be active in a particular area. Alerted to their presence, retailers can monitor potential shoplifters and prevent them from committing a crime. In both instances the use of new technology must go hand in hand with approaches that understand its limits and how it should be deployed legitimately.

 But it’s the use of social media for preventative policing that raises the most significant challenges. There is a clear tension between the surveillance potential that social media provides and the justified concerns about privacy that rightly block the police from online omniscience. But those concerns also shift the onus to maintain safety and acceptable standards of behaviour to social media users themselves. It’s "policing by consent" for the digital era. Achieving it will require trusted communication channels between the users of social media and the police. And this need will only become more acute as the nature of crime increasingly migrates to the online world.

The digital bobby on the beat 

To make sure that the police and the community can work together to meet that need, the police will need to augment their existing skills with resources that are fully conversant with and adept at operating in the digital world. It’s a significant challenge. The police need to ensure that they avoid any perception of operating as some form of Orwellian Big Brother, while at the same time ensuring that they have the know-how and carefully nuanced approaches that can help them collaborate with social media users to spot and prevent the new forms of criminality—from fraud and hacking to child exploitation and terrorism—that are proliferating online.

“Moving forward, the ability to create digital
trust between the police and public is a key
requirement for preserving the equilibrium
between safety and freedom.”

There are today tools and technologies that the police can use to track certain behaviour online in order to identify, for example, individuals that are at risk of being radicalised. It’s also possible to establish parameters that meet demands for privacy and data security. But difficult questions nonetheless persist. 

This is not a battle that the police can win on their own. Moving forward, the ability to create digital trust between the police and public is a key requirement for preserving the equilibrium between safety and freedom. In the world of Minority Report the question of how to legitimately use the "Precogs" was never satisfactorily resolved. But to make the "real" online world as safe as possible, the police and the wider community of users need to come together to achieve a better resolution.

See this post on LinkedIn: The future of predictive policing: Balancing prevention with privacy.

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