Surveillance scepticism and the world of “pre-crime”

Posted in books, civil liberties, crime, emerging issues, reports, security, social by thenextwavefutures on 18 September, 2007

More than half think that Britain “has become a surveillance society”, while experts suggest that the police should put new limits on its DNA database.

According to a report published by Liberty (press release here, but report not apparently available online). 48% agreed that “the Government and the public sector hold too much information about me”. (Weighted online survey of 2510 adults conducted by YouGov.)

Anthony Barnett, whose post at Our Kingdom alerted me to the Liberty report – while suggesting that Liberty wasn’t that hot on publicity, quotes an article by the journalist Henry Porter in which Porter says, “The personal information of innocent people, their digital footprints, their movements, as well as the things consenting adults get up to must not be allowed to become the property of the state.”

The creeping nature of the state and its data collection on individuals – in the shape of the DNA database – is also the concern of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics – an expert group which has suggested that people found not guilty should have their DNA samples removed from the UK’s national DNA database – to protect the innocent. The group also said that people convicted of minor crimes should not have their DNA stored on the database. The report and executive summary (in PDF) can be downloaded from here.

So it’s perhaps not surprising, perhaps, that a thousand tomorrows notes – from their base in Antwerp – that the UK’s surveillance technology is only a couple of steps away, if that, from the ‘pre-crime’ world of Philip K Dick’s story Minority Report, in which individuals who show signs of behaviour which are associated with latent criminal behaviour are arrested before they can commit their crime. The latest public surveillance technology, it says, is about pattern recognition.

And it’s also possible to make a worrying connection with some of the offender-based algorithms used in some US states to decided whether prisoners are likely to offend again. These are described in a recent article by Ian Ayres, the author of Super Crunchers (extract published in Financial Times here). In Virginia, those deemed likely to commit a sex crime are promptly locked up again in a state mental hospital. Ayres reports that the one person who was deemed by a judge no longer to be a danger and released subsequently did commit another sex crime. Leaving unanswered, of course, the question about the others whom the algorithm has ratified, potentially incorrectly, as serious risks, or the social, personal, and institutional biases which lean towards incarcerating people based on a risk profile rather than letting them out.

(Thanks to Nick Birks for the Super Crunchers article tip-off).


4 Responses

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  1. […] Both these are obviously about the falling cost of technology, but the point about the fashion industry seems narrow. Most objects which can usefully have intelligence embedded in them will have. The interesting question is what happens when people start using this new technology in new ways. The second point, about decisions being made by non-human entities, is the theme of Ian Ayre’s recent book Supercrunchers, which I mentioned in a recent post. […]

  2. […] posts: Surveillance scepticism and the world of “pre-crime”; ‘Liberties’ issues seem to be gaining momentum; and Ted Heath’s prescient comment on […]

  3. […] erosion of liberties I’ve written here from time to time on the evolution of Britain as a surveillance society, and the trends embedded in it. Now […]

  4. thenextwavefutures said, on 29 November, 2008 at 6:37 pm

    Futurismic reports the introduction in Portsmouth of ‘smart’ CCTV cameras which are programmed to trigger an alert when they identify suspicious patterns of behaviour. More pre-crime:


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