Digital tools for crime prevention: has the pre-crime era started?

(Updated version: June 2015 - Original version: May 2014)

On 27th March 2014, Corriere della Sera, a famous Italian newspaper, posted an interesting article about KeyCrime© software. It is a program which analyzes criminal behavior by cross examining the human criminal intentions and predicting which specific crimes will echo. It was the use of this technology that ended the stunt of a serial robber.

This robber was responsible for 11 robberies of pharmaceuticals in Italy since December 2013. The police has stated that the same strategy has been employed for each successful attempt. This was through the use of masks hiding his identity and intimidating the owner with a small knife or a toy gun. However, his last attempt misfired when he was caught and arrested by the police at Cervignano d’Adda (Lodi).

The robber’s undying commitment to employ the same tactics in his attempts was proven fatal when it is compared to the employment of technological algorithm. The discovery of using algorithm to catch criminals represents a revolutionary step to detect delinquent and illegal behavior. However, this may seem new to many but for criminal risk-assessment experts, it is nothing new under the sky.

Let’s think about the movie Minority Report, adapted from Philip K. Dick’s 1956 science fiction short story. Three mutants are able to predict any future crimes with 99% degree accuracy. This machinery, ‘Precogs’, allows the Pre-Crime Department to arrest and detain the offenders before they can commit the crime. Although this story was meant to be non-fiction, depicting an impossible futuristic situation, the truth is, this does not stray far from reality.

In 2010, The New York Times posted an article about the Police Department in Santa Cruz, California, referring to their software development which was inspired by the Precog’s experience. The phenomenon swept through America. The city of Memphis, Tennessee, also carried a study of Pre-Crime and “Real Time Crime Center” adopted typographic maps by placing HD surveillances around the city. Through the lens of CCTV cameras, it allows the authorities to have maintain instantaneous monitoring of any criminal activities happening around the city. This is deployed by the city of Richmond (Virginia), through the use of Predictive Policing 2.0, a software that can monitor the area 24/7.

A research conducted by the Memphis Department of Pre-Crime in 2012 by J. Vlahos, revealed that due to the complexity of the criminals’ mind, it remains difficult to establish precisely a correlation between the motives and the rates of the crime. However, with the aid of Memphis’s Blue Crush system, predictive strategies have proven more effective and have helped staunch crime. Since its introduction in 2006, crime rates pertaining to property and physical violence has decreased 26 percent. Therefore, The National Institute of Justice in the USA has approved an experimental law program concerning the utilization of Key-crime software in seven different cities: Boston, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and Washington DC. With the addition of rule-induction method, nowadays, computers are able to calculate a lot of different factor to provide statistical projections for future crimes.

This new approach incorporates various components including past criminal records, technology, criminology and predictive algorithms to further enhance and prevent future crimes from occurring. Recently, Prof. Richard Berk, a criminology expert from the University of Pennsylvania, developed a new algorithm through reviewing thousands of cases of persons on probation through variables such as their age, sex, type of crime and the date of the first infraction. Whereby, allowing for the estimation of the probability in which a person on probation may commit homicide. The accuracy of predictive crime approach is largely influenced by factors such as time and geographical location.

The Milanese KeyCrime© software is a revolutionary tool because is based on prediction; however, also other useful methods can be dated back to 1990 before the digital revolution even begun. We are talking about GIS – Geographical information system, a computer-based system which combines police crime data with spatial location information. One of the most important concepts of GIS is geo-coded data. Essentially, it identifies precisely the geographical information on a map. The utilization of GIS can be clearly illustrated by the Canadian Federal Government working in conjunction with the National Crime Prevention. They analyzed neighborhood crimes in six different cities and found the correlation in youth criminal behaviors and were able to identify the travel patterns and criminal trends over time.

On one hand, this method for policing depicts a very useful path to combat and prevent crime in our society. On the other hand, this opens an extraordinary amount of problems related to social and legal context.

Professor A. Ferguson from the University of The District of Columbia, emphasized that the most relevant and contradictory aspect about this method is the discriminatory effect on the society. The relationship between these data and law enforcement could generate a disproportionate effect on certain communities that is perceived as discriminatory. The adoption of the COMPSTAT program by the New York City Police Department showed that the majority of citizens that was analyzed were people of color in rural areas. This highlights that while many citizens agree with crime-reduction techniques, those living in areas with higher crime rates, the consequences are visible through social tensions, liberty infringements and physical violence.

Ultimately, the focus of this topic is not represented only through data analysis based on crime and society but on how those data are utilize to accomplish a wider range of function in order to maximize its potential. Moreover, the use of digital evidence in judicial proceedings has presented a challenge for jurists due to the obligation under cross examination rules and respecting the parties’ fundamental procedural guarantees. The advancement of technological use in crime prevention has been welcomed and criticized by different direction, such as in the field of constitutional law and criminal procedure law. Thus, in order to effectively implement this framework associated with Pre-Crime prevention, the right to privacy and the principle of reasonable suspicion must be taken more into account.

The technological advancement in this field, exhibited recently through these predictive policing software, has compelled potential criminals to be on their toes. It is too fast to say that the use of this technology in this field has reached its peak and it will be interesting to see how the use of algorithms can evolve even more. However, what is true is that that pre-crime revolution has already begun!


Marco Mendola

Tech & Law Center Fellow