Kenneth Cukier
Data Editor, The Economist

Fighting (the Propensity for) Crime with Big Data

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Typically you have to commit a crime before you are penalized for that crime. But what if Big Data can predict that you have a likelihood of committing a crime?

Kenneth Cukier

Kenneth Cukier is the Data Editor of The Economist. His writings have also appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Prospect, The Financial Times and Foreign Affairs, among others. He has been a frequent commentator on business and technology matters for CBS, CNN, NPR, the BBC and others.

Kenneth is co-author of BIG DATA: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think.




Kenneth Cukier:  Big data is not an unmitigated good.  Like many things in society, in fact probably all things, it comes with risks as well and it comes with a dark side.  And one dark side of course is privacy.  That exists today, it’ll exist tomorrow, maybe it gets bigger with big data as well.  But there is something else to play for, something else that’s a little more troubling still. And that is, if you will, propensity.  It is big data algorithms making a prediction of what you are likely to do before you’ve actually done it.

Now the criminal justice system has never really dealt with this sort of problem before. Typically you have to commit a crime before you are penalized for that crime.  But what if it is simply a prediction that you have a likelihood of committing a crime?  Would society be remiss not to intervene? If I could tell with a 98 percent statistical accuracy that you are likely to shoplift in the next 12 months, public safety requires that I interact.  And maybe I don’t put you into jail, it’s not Minority Report it's not pre-crime, I have a social worker knock on your door and say, “We’d like to help you.  We’d like to get you an after school job if your teenager.  We’d like to sort of support you.”

Well that sounds like it’s a benefit but in reality if you think about it, this person is gonna be stigmatized in the eye of his peers, school teachers, parents.  In fact he’ll probably feel stigmatized in his own eyes and feel badly and we might even encourage towards this sort of behavior that we want to prevent.  The point is that he will have been a victim of a prediction about him.  And he can rightly say, “I will be the two percent that will not shoplift that I’ll exercise my moral choice.”  So the solution seems to be in a big data world we want to somehow sanctify the notion of the human volition of human free will and to preserve that as a central attribute.

Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton


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