The Developing Department of Precrime
Science fiction comes to life as law enforcement agencies begin to move to identify and stop criminals before crimes are committed.
Follow this link to the original source: "U.S. Details Some Data-Mining Programs, Hints at Others"
In the short story Minority Report, the late science fiction master Philip K. Dick described a future police division called "Precrime" that sought to discover and arrest criminals before they committed an actual crime. Dick's Precrime unit depended on the work of three human "precogs" who could see the future but also used banks of computers and databases. In the unit's "analytical wing," Dick imagined "impressive banks of equipment – the data-receptors, and the computing mechanisms that studied and restructured the incoming material."
Post-9/11, real life has begun to imitate Philip K. Dick. Absent the "precogs," a new report to Congress has painted a picture of a sort of nascent FBI precrime unit using data-mining programs to filter through databases of private information looking for suspicious activity. According to Wired magazine, the Justice Department is using data mining to track "identity-theft gangs, Medicare fraud, staged automobile accidents, online pharmacy scams and illegal housing sales."
The Justice Department is also using a System to Assess Risk (STAR) data-mining program that will let a user enter the names of terrorist suspects into a computer and calculate, based on 35 factors, how likely each person is to be a terrorist threat. According to Wired, STAR makes use of "a massive database of public records ranging from fishing licenses to bankruptcy proceedings. That system is owned by LexisNexis."
The STAR system is still under development, but when it comes online, some worry that it will cast a wide net that will catch innocent people as well as criminals. That's something that has plagued federal security programs like the embattled terrorist watch list maintained by the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC).
The ballooning number of names on that list now includes hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent Americans. One of them is columnist John L. Smith of the Las Vegas Review Journal. In a column, Smith described how TSA agents have repeatedly stopped him, his wife, and his 9-year-old daughter at airport security checkpoints. Smith finally found out the reason for the frequent stops. "'Your name is on the watch list,' the friendly Southwest representative explained," Smith recalled. "It's the name, she said. It's a common name, a possible alias."
Still, the idea of stopping a criminal before he or she commits a crime is attractive on some level, particularly if the potential criminal is a pedophile. That's the case, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, in Waukesha, Wisconsin, where Michael Monyelle faces a trial next month. His "crime," according to the Journal-Sentinel, is that he "told his parole agent that he was having deviant thoughts about children."
Recalling his thoughts during a visit to a thrift store not long after being released from prison where he was incarcerated for having sexual contact with two underage girls, Monyelle told his parole officer: "I started to look at the shoes and I saw a little girl about 7, I think. I couldn't get a good look," he said, "so I went around to the other side to get a better look." He also admitted: "Sometimes I have thoughts of kidnapping kids, too."
It seems cut-and-dried: Let's get this dangerous guy off the streets before he commits an unspeakable act against an innocent child. The petition, under Wisconsin Chapter 980 for involuntary incarceration of sexually violent persons says, in fact, that Monyelle "is dangerous to others because his mental disorder makes it likely he will engage in acts of sexual violence." But even though there are cases like Monyelle's in which it seems unambiguously necessary to take action to prevent a horrible crime from occurring, prosecuting "pre-criminals" is a dicey affair liable to abuse.Christians, for instance, are justifiably worried about being targeted for their beliefs by hate crimes legislation and, among those who believe people are causing global warming, it has become fashionable to tar skeptics as dangerous deniers. "Bluntly put, climate change deniers pose a greater danger than the lingering industry that denies the Holocaust," Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist Joel Connelly said on July 10 in one of the most ugly and despicable attempts to stifle debate on climate change ever written.
How long, one wonders, before that kind of rhetoric leads to the passage of hate crimes legislation outlawing dissent from the radical environmentalist agenda? Clearly, despite the potential benefits of a "pre-crime" law enforcement paradigm in some cases, such a scheme remains problematic and dangerous. Citizen vigilance will be required to prevent one of Philip K. Dick's dystopian fantasies from being realized in our own world.