China has a new strategy in fighting crime, ripped from science fiction and hastily pasted at the top of the list of paranoia-inducing concepts.
It’s called pre-crime. It goes further than sting operations, counterterrorism, or any other government action to preempt criminal activity ever before.
Like the 2002 film Minority Report, China wants to fight crimes before they happen. They want to know they’ll happen before they’re planned—before the criminal even knows he’s going to be part of them. Bloomberg Business reported that the Communist Party “has directed one of the country’s largest state-run defense contractors, China Electronics Technology Group, to develop software to collate data on jobs, hobbies, consumption habits, and other behavior of ordinary citizens to predict terrorist acts before they occur.”
The Chinese government wants to know about everything: every text a person sends, every extra stop they make on the way home. It’s designed for dissidents, but it means that they’ll know every time a smoker buys a pack of cigarettes, how much gas a car owner uses, what time the new mom goes to bed, and what’s in the bachelor’s refrigerator.
It’s a scary thought, especially when you consider that the main target of Chinese pre-crime efforts wouldn’t be “terrorists,” murderers, rapists, or child molesters, but rather dissidents of every shape and size.
By publicly announcing their intention to build an intelligence network that can predict crimes, China just took a step closer to all the thought-policing dystopian nightmare scenarios we’ve always worried about as members of a modern society. And they want people to know it.
But is pre-crime in and of itself a dangerous technology? It’s hard to say.
Science fiction aside, pre-crime is already somewhat of a reality; data gathering is part of intelligence communities’ and police surveillance efforts and has been for years. A lot of that surveillance has helped nab those responsible for things like child pornography. But whereas it’s been largely surgical here in the U.S., China wants total coverage, which makes crime prevention look a lot different.
Crime prevention is a double-edged sword when it comes to individual rights: The logic that promotes deterrents (like better locks, larger police forces) doesn’t target individual criminals, but rather focuses on protecting people and property from any criminals that might do harm. But pre-crime and data aren’t designed to build better deterrents, but to search out people who might become criminals one day.
Think about it like this: Let’s say your concern as a citizen is having your house broken into. You might prevent the crime with a deterrent like better locks, an alarm system, or by owning a firearm. These are tools and strategies designed so that when some guy shows up with a crowbar, he’s going to give up, chicken out, or get caught before you’re harmed.
But the pre-crime solution to that would look much more complex. You’d be doing things like scouring the Web for places where photos of your home are posted, logging cellphone records of people who drive by often. When they make purchases at a hardware store, or rent a van, you get an alert.
It might sound comprehensive, even reassuring. But the thing is, you’re being monitored too.
And again, this sort of thing isn’t going to be used to stop break-ins and muggings, but rather anti-government and anti-stability crimes. According to Bloomberg, this isn’t getting a lot of pushback from civil liberties groups, and part of that could be because a lot of people aren’t convinced the government doesn’t already have all of this information. Vast networks of intelligence gatherers exist at every level of society: everything from analysts checking Internet traffic to paid informants in neighborhoods.
It’s not so much the data gathering, then, as the data analysis. A story in the Telegraph explained that the purpose of this new system, then, would be “compiling advanced surveillance data, including using artificial intelligence to identify people’s faces on security camera footage, and analyzing people’s online behavior, financial transactions, jobs, and habits.”
So the big question then, is: Can real terrorism be prevented by these means? Acts of terror are, by nature, random and unpredictable, so you’d be right to be skeptical. But a recent Washington Post piece outlined what China already knows: that with enough data, seemingly random and covertly planned attacks have patterns.
There’s potential for this kind of technology to do good—the kind of good that saves lives. But as Tom Cruise reminded us for two and a half hours, even the best-intentioned technology can be bastardized and bent to do evil in the wrong hands.
There’s not a yes or no coda to this story because predicting the future is, like artificial intelligence, still more science fiction than fact. But even if China succeeds at building such an intelligence array, let’s hope we have more than a Hollywood actor protecting the rest of the world from the same fate.