Predicting Crime Keeps Society Stuck in the Past


A die the most notable example of the use of predictive technology is the story of Robert McDaniel, detailed by reporter Matt Stroud in The Verge in May 2021. McDaniel is a resident of Austin, a Chicago neighborhood who saw 72 homicides, nearly 10 percent of the city’s total, in 2020 alone. Despite McDaniel having no history of violence (he was arrested for selling weed and shooting dice), a Chicago Police Department predictive policing program determined in 2013 that he was a “person of interest” – literally. In the 2011-2016 CBS crime drama of the same name, “the machine,” created by the series protagonist, can only determine that a person will either be the victim or perpetrator of a violent crime, but not which one. Likewise, the algorithm used by the CPD indicated that McDaniel was more likely than 99.9% of Chicago’s population to be involved in a shootout, although which side of the gun he is on is unknown.

Armed with this “knowledge,” Chicago police placed McDaniel on their list of strategic topics, later known as the “heat list,” and kept him under close surveillance, although he was not suspected. to be involved in a specific crime. Because some of that surveillance was overt, it suggested to others in his neighborhood that he might have some sort of connection to the police – that he was perhaps an informant, an extremely damaging reputation.

As you might expect, McDaniel has been shot twice since he was first identified by the CPD: first in 2017, possibly due in part to the publicity generated by his appearance this that year in a German documentary, Pre-crime, which he hoped would help clear his name; and most recently in 2020. He told The Verge that both shootings were due to CPD surveillance itself and the resulting suspicion of cooperating with law enforcement. “From McDaniel’s perspective,” Stroud writes, “the picklist caused the evil its creators hoped to avoid: it predicted a shootout that wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t predicted the shootout. “

This is quite true, but there is a deeper pattern to be observed here as well. Due to past police data, McDaniel’s neighborhood, and therefore the people there, have been labeled as violent. The program then said that the future would be the same, that is to say that there would be no future, but simply reiterations of the past, more or less identical to it. This is not just a self-fulfilling prophecy, although it certainly is: it is a system designed to bring the past into the future, and thus prevent the world from changing.

The program that identified McDaniel appears to have been developed specifically for CPD by an engineer at the Illinois Institute of Technology, according to an earlier report from Stroud. The CPD program identified around 400 people most likely to be involved in violent crime and put them on its favorite list. This program began in 2012 and was halted in 2019, as a Chicago city government monitoring report that year revealed that raised concerns about it, including the accuracy of its findings. and its policies regarding data sharing with other agencies. The custom CPD algorithm is said to have focused on individuals, and it likely resembles a wide variety of programs used by law enforcement and military personnel that the public has little knowledge of. For example, in 2018, reporter Ali Winston reported in The Verge that surveillance firm Palantir, founded by Peter Thiel, had been secretly testing similar technology in New Orleans since 2012 without notifying many city officials.


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