Minority Report: British Police Plan to Use ‘Predictive Crime’ Software

shot at member of the public
AP Photo/Sang Tan

British police are currently in talks with a technology company regarding plans to introduce predictive software said to be capable of predicting when serious criminals will strike, despite the obvious ethical problems posed by such software.

It sounds more like the plot of Spielberg’s 2002 film Minority Report, in which a ‘pre-crime’ policing unit catches would-be murderers before they kill. But New Zealand technology firm Wynyard which developed the “Person of Interest” software, claims that it can predict when criminals will strike again, or even when would-be criminals might first act, the Sunday Times has reported.

The firm is now working with Western security agencies including GCHQ and the FBI, as well as the New Zealand police and government, who feed the software with data on known criminals, and on individuals and groups deemed to be “at risk”.

The software analyses the data, cross referencing it with text messages, emails and social network posts to alert authorities to possible impending threats to public safety. According to Wynyard the “Person of Interest solution is designed to provide a unified view of potential offenders or victims. This enables law enforcement agencies, which have a mandate to protect the community, to quickly understand who poses a threat and who is at risk.”

Paul Stokes, Wynyard’s chief operating officer, has confirmed that the company is in talks with UK police services, although he said confidentiality agreements prevented him from commenting further.

Describing POI, Stokes said: “It tells you in real-time that these people have done something abnormal and you need to go and check on them. Something unusual is starting to happen. Let’s get there before something really bad happens.”

The Home Office has said that it is “not aware” of the talks with Wynyard.

The company, which is on the front line of the debate on freedom of speech and the internet, has previously come out strongly in favour of a more authoritarian stance to the policing of cyberspace. In a December 2014 blog post, it accused companies such as Facebook of creating new, lawless Wild West by refusing to actively police their content.

“With no rule book, and no single entity controlling their world, social media are the new Wild West, more interested in taking care of its community rather than taking a wider view on national and international security,” the blog post read.

This isn’t the only way that British police are attempting to form pre-crime units. Scientists at Cardiff University in Wales are developing a CCTV system which analyses crowd behaviour to predict when a fight might break out.

Professor Simon Moore of the university’s Violence & Society Research Group said: “Developing smart camera technology that can pinpoint violence is a really cost effective way of helping police to do their jobs,’ said ‘Officers can’t monitor hundreds of city centre CCTV cameras all the time.

“By using imaging technology, officers will be alerted to violence hotspots in real-time, helping to further reduce violence. It’s a great way of using technology to make the streets safer for all of us.”


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