When Computers Predict Crime

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If Amazon's algorithms can predict what kind of products you like, maybe similar programs can guess what criminals might like to steal. Los Angeles police hope to use predictive computer modeling to stop crime in its tracks, according to the L.A. Times:

"As police departments have gotten better at pushing down crime, we are looking now for the thing that will take us to the next level," LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said. "I firmly believe predictive policing is it."

Predictive policing is rooted in the notion that it is possible, through sophisticated computer analysis of information about previous crimes, to predict where and when crimes will occur. At universities and technology companies in the U.S. and abroad, scientists are working to develop computer programs that, in the most optimistic scenarios, could enable police to anticipate, and possibly prevent, many types of crime...

One, who recently left UCLA to teach at Santa Clara University near San Jose is working to prove he can forecast the time and place of crimes using the same mathematical formulas that seismologists use to predict the distribution of aftershocks from an earthquake.

What's wrong with that?  It's the assumption of one of the researchers:

"But humans are not nearly as random as we think. . . . In a sense, crime is just a physical process, and if you can explain how offenders move and how they mix with their victims, you can understand an incredible amount."

The paradox is that while criminal behavior might be relatively predictable now, if the program succeeds, that might change. Burglars and robbers might start targeting other kinds and locations of homes and businesses. And if the predictive software catches up with those, they might deliberately inject some randomness into their behavior -- deliberately disorganized crime.

Other law enforcement theorists have urged randomization for the police themselves; see "Police behaving predictably: The other enemy" at Officer.com. According to it, other computer scientists are randomizing security routines at L.A. International Airport. Of course average Los Angeles street criminals are not sophisticated conspirators. But if successful predictive programs take the less imaginative out of circulation, the survivors will probably be a more ingenious, and less predictable lot. That's why white-collar crime is such a moving target. Scams are constantly evolving. 

Crime "just a physical process"? Earthquakes, even in Southern California, don't swap tips on how to foil seismometers.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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