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News-Sentinel.com Your Town. Your Voice.

Innocent until we suspect otherwise

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.The Associated Press
Thursday, May 11, 2017 09:36 am

"Minority Report" scared the hell out of me. As a student of and longtime believer in the Western criminal justice system, not to mention someone dependent upon its proper functioning, I respect the careful way the rights of the accused are honored. Unless there is a reasonable cause to suspect us, we have the right to be left alone. Even if we are suspected, we can't be subjected to search or seizure without a properly authorized warrant. If we end up accused in a court of law, we have a right to judgment by a jury of our peers, and the burden of proof is on the state.

But what if we could prevent crime before it happened by correctly identifying those who are going to commit the crime? We get them off the street, and we are safe, end of story. Never mind that we are putting people in jail who have done nothing wrong and that such an injustice could be visited upon us sometime as well. It's for the greater good.

Would Americans accept that? I fervently hope not, but sometimes I wonder. As a society, after all, we seem comfortable enough with punishing certain sex offenders long after they've served their official sentences. When they get out of prison, supposedly having paid their debt to society, they are put on a permanent sex offender registry and hounded for the rest of their lives. Yes, they are despicable criminals who are likely to offend again, but if we accept such a lifetime official shunning of them, aren't we creating the possibility of similar treatment for anyone, including ourselves?

At any rate, I'm sensitive to hints that real life might be headed toward a "Minority Report"future, maybe more sensitive than I should be. But I swear there seem to be more and more clues all the time.

For example, it is reported that UK police are using an AI system to vastly improve their crime-solving abilities: 

 MOVE over, Sherlock. UK police are trialling a computer system that can piece together what might have happened at a crime scene. The idea is that the system, called VALCRI, will be able to do the laborious parts of a crime analyst's job in seconds, freeing them to focus on the case, while also provoking new lines of enquiry and possible narratives that may have been missed.

“Everyone thinks policing is about connecting the dots, but that's the easy bit,” says William Wong, who leads the project at Middlesex University London. “The hard part is working out which dots need to be connected.”

VALCRI's main job is to help generate plausible ideas about how, when and why a crime was committed as well as who did it. It scans millions of police records, interviews, pictures, videos and more, to identify connections that it thinks are relevant. All of this is then presented on two large touchscreens for a crime analyst to interact with.

I don't mind the police using more sophisticated tools to try to stay ahead of criminals. But it doesn't take a great leap of imagination to see the problem  in letting computers determine the probability of different narratives explaining a crime. The more we remove the human element from the criminal justice system, the closer we are to letting expediency  trump our rights.

Here's an even scarier example:

Emotion reading technology could soon be used by police after a Russian firm created a tool that can identify people in a crowd and tell if they are angry, stressed or nervous.

 The software, created by NTechLab, can monitor citizens for suspicious behaviour by tracking identity, age, gender and current emotional state. It could be used to pre-emptively stop criminals and potential terrorists. 

"The recognition gives a new level of security in the street because in a couple of seconds you can identify terrorists or criminals or killers," said Alexander Kabakov, NTechLab chief executive. 

"Preemptively stop." That has a nice, clean sound, and it's so positive. We're being proactive! That man looks nervous — lock him up! Look at that angry miscreant — shoot him now!

Think it will never come to that? What about the discussions we're having about kids who shoot up schools. Weren't their signs that something wasn't right? How did we miss those signs? The discussion never gets to far into what we'r supposed to do when we think we do recognize the signs? Treat the kids as if they've already shot up a school? How do separate the real potential terrorists from the average sullen, rebellious teenager, many of whom would exhibit the very same signs?

It was just a couple of years ago that Hitatchi  announced its “Predictive Crime Analytics (PCA)” designed to “enhance public safety through the delivery of highly accurate crime predictions.” The system is “specifically designed to advance the public safety initiatives of cities and municipalities” and this includes not only predictive analytics based on reams of information gathered from social media and other databases, but also “improved access to video data.”

The system is already set to be implemented in pilot programs in various US cities. One apologist for such government intrusion opines in The Wall Street Journal that “There's no reason why gun owners, range operators and firearms dealers shouldn't be a source of information for local police seeking information about who might merit special attention.”

How will such unimaginable tyranny be implemented upon us? You just read all the key words in the citations above: “public safety,” “law enforcement,” “prevent crimes.” Each of these ideas is as sacrosanct and immune from criticism in American dialogue as the infamous “for the children.” Pretty much anything done in the name of public safety will be very difficult to oppose, mainly because conservative American Christians are champions of all things done in the name of fighting crime and enhancing police.

All this is taking place in a milieu greatly altered by the "war against terrorism," for which we seem ready to accept all kinds of erosions of our constitutional rights in order to achieve that magic state known as security. As Dr. Joel McDurmon of The American Vision, says, there is no security in society as long as individual rights and privacy are not secure:

We must instill within ourselves a will to liberty . . .  Without preparing ourselves mentally to stand for what is culturally counterintuitive and socially entrenched, we have no future but decline."  

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