Twentieth Century Fox



Precursor to Pre-Cogs

Minority Report is a science fiction movie based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, starring Tom Cruise. In the movie crimes not yet committed are prevented based on foreknowledge of future events provided by three psychics called pre-cogs. The great thing about this movie is that it is fiction, right? However, advanced predictive analytics and big data have become so sophisticated that they are approaching the precognitions prophesied in the dystopian movie.

Until recently, spies focused on what we are doing or what we had done. Now, due to the advancements in computing and algorithms, it is now possible to project what we will do. The advancements are not limited to computation and algorithms but are possible because of the data that most people voluntarily carry around on their smart phones. Unprecedented access to live, interactive data streams are easily collected and analyzed. This data provides a mosaic that allows analytics to predict patterns, tendencies and even future activities.

Edward Snowden brought to light that our personal data was being accessed by the government without our consent. But is there is another dimension to spying? Our privacy is also breached, not just by Big Brother, but by Little Brother. The phone companies, credit card companies, internet providers and search engines collect our data and use it to predict our behavior. They learn who we are, what we do, where we go and mold their advertisements and product rollouts to what they discover about us. Simultaneously, they have been creating backdoors to our private data in the name of security.

Is this an invasion of our privacy? The legal answer is that these companies are not governments, and therefore are not restrained by the same protections. The argument is that the data is merely used to target customers more effectively and I have nothing to hide, so I don’t care about privacy. What this narrative fails to recognize is that privacy is not a utility and “pre-crime” is the reason to be concerned with our privacy rights.

Technologies are being adopted by the police, where backdoor access to data isn’t required for the government, because it is the government. Predictive analytics, brain fingerprinting, mobile fingerprinting along with data collection methods like using drones and Google Glass are all part of how advanced computing is paving the way for the arrest of pre-criminals as a method to deter future crimes.

We need to have a discussion about data and privacy. The ability to collect the amounts of data at the rates we currently is coupled with the ability to analyze this data requires that we understand the implications. Perhaps predictive analytics can provide us with the possible consequences before it is too late.