Are You Likely to Commit a Crime? Here’s What Google Data Reveals

In an age of bountiful data, there's dark potential for how corporations and judicial systems could use private details to discriminate against innocent people.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz: A big question—if anybody’s seen the movie 'Minority Report' where people are arrested for crimes before they actually commit them, just because the data suggests they’re going to commit a crime—is: are we entering this world with so much data available? And there definitely are clues on the internet that people are considering committing a crime. People really do type “how to kill your girlfriend” on Google or “how to commit a murder”. So what should we do with this information as a society? I think we have to be really, really careful. There’s an ethical and privacy reason to be careful; as a society it’s not supposed to be illegal to have bad thoughts.

But I think there’s also a data science reason for this. One of the things that you do see in this data is that a lot of people have horrific thoughts or make horrific searches without ever going through with a horrific action. So it may be that when we have all this data we think we’re just going to be able to figure out exactly who is a risk of committing a crime or doing something bad, but it may be that it’s just really, really hard because a huge percentage of people look really, really bad on paper but never go through with the action.

There is a study of Prosper, a peer-to-peer lending firm. So people can apply for loans, and scholars analyzed what people wrote in their loan application, and whether they paid back their loan. And they found that you could predict whether someone will pay back the loan based on the words that person used in their loan application. So if a person uses the phrase “I promise” they’re much less likely to pay back a loan, because I guess everybody lies, so “I promise” is a clue that you’re not going to pay back the loan. And one of the more striking indicators, one of the single highest indicators you’re not going to pay back the loan, is if you use the word “God” in your loan application. And this is kind of a little bit eerie and suggests a potentially dark future. It means that someone, a lender, would be “wise” to not give a loan to anybody who mentions God. If someone says, “God bless you” in a loan application they’re put together in a large group of other people who tend, on average, not to pay back their loans.

So there’s real danger to some of this big data where a lot of the correlation—everything kind of correlates with everything else, and sometimes for reasons that we don’t understand, some words people use, or likes they have on Facebook, predict that they’re going to do bad things, even if they’re not really going to do bad things, and they may be punished without even realizing why.

One thing you see in the Google search data related to religion is the questions people have, and they’re usually concentrated in the Bible Belt. But people have kind of loaded questions about God. So “why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?” or “why does God allow suffering?” or “why does God need so much praise?” These are questions that people might not raise aloud because they don’t want to share their doubts with others, but they turn to Google and ask some really, really loaded questions about some of the stories that they hear related to religion.

Are you a future criminal? You might not think so, says data scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, but what do you look like on paper? Have you ever searched something suspicious online? Ever been curious about a dark topic? Just like the film Minority Report, where "future murderers" are arrested before they commit their crimes, we have a similar predictive tool ready-made: Google's search data. People really do search for things like 'how to kill your girlfriend' or 'how to dispose of a body', but as Stephens-Davidowitz points out, it’s not supposed to be illegal to have bad thoughts. Beyond privacy and ethics, data science also backs the idea that you can't predict with any accuracy who will commit a crime, as he says: "a lot of people have horrific thoughts or make horrific searches without ever going through with a horrific action." Data also provides intriguing correlations about who or won't will pay their loans based on a single word used in their loan application, and reveals the questions people in the Bible Belt are too afraid to ask aloud. This kind of data in the wrong hands can leave people vulnerable to discrimination or worse, if society lets its ethics slide. Stephens-Davidowitz is the author of Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are.

Your genetics influence how resilient you are to the cold

What makes some people more likely to shiver than others?

KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images
Surprising Science

Some people just aren't bothered by the cold, no matter how low the temperature dips. And the reason for this may be in a person's genes.

Keep reading Show less

Harvard study finds perfect blend of fruits and vegetables to lower risk of death

Eating veggies is good for you. Now we can stop debating how much we should eat.

Credit: Pixabay
Surprising Science
  • A massive new study confirms that five servings of fruit and veggies a day can lower the risk of death.
  • The maximum benefit is found at two servings of fruit and three of veggies—anything more offers no extra benefit according to the researchers.
  • Not all fruits and veggies are equal. Leafy greens are better for you than starchy corn and potatoes.
Keep reading Show less

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

Cephalopod aces 'marshmallow test' designed for eager children

The famous cognition test was reworked for cuttlefish. They did better than expected.

Credit: Hans Hillewaert via Wikicommons
Surprising Science
  • Scientists recently ran the Stanford marshmallow experiment on cuttlefish and found they were pretty good at it.
  • The test subjects could wait up to two minutes for a better tasting treat.
  • The study suggests cuttlefish are smarter than you think but isn't the final word on how bright they are.
Keep reading Show less
Quantcast