Can big data be used to prevent crime from happening?

Crime / Law   |   
Published September 7, 2017   |   

If you’ve seen the movie “Minority Report” — released back in 2002 — you know the premise is both unique and far-fetched. It is, after all, a science-fiction film littered with futuristic technology and unheard-of societal norms.
Drugs, for example, are consumed via air-based capsules. You hold the device up to your nostril, press a button and the substance is released. Also unheard of is the idea that law enforcement in the film is not only able to predict a criminal’s actions, but also arrest the perpetrator, therefore stopping crime before it happens.

The opening scene shows the titular character, played by Tom Cruise, watching a precognitive vision about a man who would later plan to murder his unfaithful wife. The police arrive just in time to stop him from making the murder a reality.
Without focusing on the ethical and questionable arguments behind arresting someone before they commit a crime, is this something that’s viable? Is it even possible in today’s world?

The answer is yes, and wouldn’t you know it, it’s thanks to big data and predictive analytics — just like the kind marketers and retailers use. More importantly, today’s law enforcement isn’t just tapping into a private and confidential database of hidden information — they’re using publicly available data.

This, coupled with more secure data from local authorities and intelligence agencies, means officials have the opportunity to analyze and predict a criminal’s movements — like what plays out in the movie. The only difference is, today’s officials use data science and not paranormal visions.

Is this real life, or is this just fantasy?

The idea behind predictive systems is to help law enforcement agencies be more efficient, as well as better prepared. If they enter a situation knowing who and what to look for, they’re less likely to make poor decisions that can result in an innocent being harmed.

Big data also allows law enforcement to better prepare and come up with preplanned missions, nabbing criminals at the opportune moment, and preventing further crimes from happening. LAPD relied on a similar technology to reduce crime in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, and it worked.

The program was initially developed to help predict earthquakes and evolved into something more. As a result, the LAPD reduced burglaries by 33 percent, violent crimes by 21 percent and property crime by 12 percent throughout the affected areas, simply by applying computer-driven algorithms.

Doubt was harbored by many when the system was first introduced. It’s tough to believe that computers and streams of data can better protect the citizens of an area, but it turned out to be true. Eventually, the LAPD grew to trust and rely on the system.

LA isn’t the only place where a system like this has been introduced. Throughout six major Colombian cities, big data technology will be used to analyze the cause of various crimes. It will then be used further to develop ways to combat it and respond more effectively. In other words, agencies and officials want to get to the root of major issues in order to turn the tide.

In 2015, the NYPD used big data systems to apprehend three criminals before something worse happened. Eight shots had been fired in Brooklyn, and through the help of big data, police were able to complete their investigation almost immediately and make the proper arrests.

Should we be concerned?

Of course, this also begs the question: Should civilians be concerned with big data and how it’s being used in this way? Is it a threat to our daily lives?

Right now, there’s nothing to be concerned about. The technology in question cannot be used to prevent crime from happening, and it can’t be used to arrest anyone before something occurs. Instead, it helps provide law enforcement agencies with a clear picture of when, why and how certain crimes occur.

Predictive analytics and big data systems benefit us because it helps these agencies turn the surrounding areas into better, safer neighborhoods. It also contributes directly to a reduction in overall crime, especially in dangerous areas.
Transparency is critical. As long as the agencies and officials using these systems are open and straightforward about how they’re being relied on and what information they provide, we should be fine.

However, if it does evolve — and it may — then concern will be warranted. As of now, it’s nothing you need to keep an eye on, but in the future, that may change. You needn’t be worried about this yet — unless you are one of the criminals these systems will help take down.