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One of the most intriguing (though highly flawed) shows of the new TV season is "Person of Interest," the CBS crime show built on the back of our new surveillance state.

The premise: A mysterious genius invents a massive computer for the government that analyzes unfathomable amounts of electronic surveillance data (phone calls, emails, security camera footage) to predict terrorist attacks before they happen. However, the program is so good that it also predicts more mundane crimes like domestic disputes and police corruption that the government ignores. So the genius hires a equally mysterious ex-Special Forces badass and they become a crime fighting duo for the little guy.

The reason it's intriguing is that the idea isn't that far-fetched in the real world. The Los Angeles Times reports on researchers at UCLA who have been working with the LAPD on a computer model that analyzes data of past crimes to identify the perpetrators of gang activity, including which gangs and members are likely to be responsible for certain crimes.

To test it, the researchers created an imaginary set of crime data that closely mirrored the shootings, assaults and other gang-on-gang crimes that occurred in Hollenbeck. They then removed pieces of important information, such as the name of one or both of the involved gangs, and tested whether the computer algorithm could come up with the missing data.

About 80% of the time, the computer calculations were able to identify the three gangs most likely to have committed a crime against a rival, the researchers said. ... the algorithm identified the correct gang, rather than just the top three, half of the time. Simple chance produced the right gang only 17% of the time.

Of course, it's a big leap from solving crimes to predicting them ahead of time, but the concept built on algorithms like these is an emerging field in computer and criminal science. In today's world, law enforcement has no shortage of information about the people it investigates, but it doesn't often have the knowledge or resources to do anything with it. If a computer to can identify who is likely to become a criminal, what kind of crimes they by into, and where the opportunities are, detectives — or mysterious billionaires and their Army buddies — might be able to do the rest.

Then sooner or later, we're all at the mercy of Tom Cruise.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.

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