How Facebook could get you arrested

Yesterday the Guardian published a very interesting article on ‘How Facebook could you arrested‘. It’s about how police use data from social networking sites and computer algorithms to prevent crime by predictive policing, or PredPol (ridik name, yes). It’s a really good read and I’d highly recommend it!

The first element of the article is predpol. The possibilities of using data and algorithms to prevent crime before it happens are fascinating, but the potential for abuse is enormous. Because data gaps/biases aren’t random, the holes in policing based on predictive policing won’t be random, either. The author’s example of unreported rapes, for example, would leave that area insufficiently policed because the crime is unreported. The disproportionately high incarceration rate of racial minorities would worsen given (more) systematic and software-sanctioned racial profiling. Ideally, predpol would be used with caution and a deep awareness of its limitations, with algorithms that – somehow! – address and undo the underlying biases already ingrained in our law enforcement system. I’m extremely sceptical of that happening though. And I’m generally distrustful of the police anyway, so basically this terrifies me.

The bit about environmental vulnerabilities was really interesting. While predpol can be considered one step ahead of crime investigation in the sense that it’s proactive rather than reactive, it’s still somewhat of a band-aid solution. Communities might achieve low crime rates with more/better policing, but they could do so more effectively by eliminating the root causes of crime that are often based on societal problems.

The second element of the article about the ethics of companies like Google and Facebook giving/selling data to the police reminds me of Canada’s controversial bill last year that would allow the government access to private electronic communications. This in itself is controversial enough, but then Vic Toews, Minister for Public Safety, made the comment that you’re “either with us or with the child pornographers”, a vague insinuation – nay, outright accusation – that opposition to the bill constitutes support for child pornography. Needless to say, the quote went viral, and Minister Toews attracted the undesired wrath of online hacktivist network Anonymous.

BUT I DIGRESS. The government already equates publicly-voiced dissent with probable cause, and in some cases (eg. peaceful opposition to fracking, oil sands) with terrorism, so it would really have a field day if given access to private communications.

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