Crime fighting

Javed M never knew if someone had falsely reported him having done something.

He had slept a bit later than usual, after having a few drinks more than usual the night before. So it was the pounding on the door and the shouts of “Open up! Police! Open up!” that woke him.

It’s never easy to be awakened by police pounding on your door. Javed’s mind, like most, was not at its best in the two or three seconds after awakening. Plus it was summer, and Javed in summer normally slept without nightclothes. His semi-awake mind told him he should not open the door while totally naked, so he had just managed to slip on his trousers when the police outside lost patience and kicked the door in.

The police were armed but did not fire, perhaps because a drowsy young man sitting on a bed and trying to buckle his belt did not look too threatening.

Each of two bulky policemen grabbed one of his arms, hoisted him off the floor, and turned him to face the officer carrying the AK-47, who demanded to know: “All right! What are you up to?”

Still partially dazed by sleep, Javed could only tell the truth: “I … I was asleep.”

This was clearly not the right answer. It earned Javed a poke to the midsection from the AK-47 and the snarled demand: “Don’t get smart ass with me! I’ve killed more terrorists than you’re planning to help. Better come clean while you’ve got the chance. We know it all.”

By this time, Javed was convinced that he was having a nightmare and was desperately trying to awake from it. When he was unable to do so, he started to cry.

At this point, a fourth person entered the room. He was in civilian clothes, but the deference of the uniformed police clearly indicated that he was high up in their hierarchy. “You can set him down,” the new arrival said to the two police who were holding Javed 10 cm or so off the floor. They did so immediately, but did not let go of Javed’s arms. The policeman with the AK-47 moved to the other side of the room, but continued to hold the rifle with both hands.

I am Mr Sapo,” the newcomer continued, to Javed. “I know who you are. Indeed, I may know more about you than you know.” Javed could only stare and try to stop his tears, since it seemed tears couldn’t end the nightmare.

You are no doubt thinking our visit to you is some sort of nightmare or the action of homicidal lunatics. No. Everything that is happening is real and is part of a sophisticated anti-crime program of your government.”

But, but I’m not a criminal,” Javed managed to say.

You may well believe that,” said Sapo, “and it is probably literally true at this moment. That is not the point.”

It isn’t?”

No. Of course, we still have to have forces tracking down offenders who have already broken the law. But modern criminology is mainly concerned with preventing crimes, not arresting people who have committed them. For some years now, this has involved the development – the gradual perfection, I might say – of predictive policing.”

Predicate poles?” Javed managed.

No, you idiot,” Mr Sapo said, grabbing Javed’s nose between his thumb and forefinger. “Predictive policing. Predpol for short. Now shut up and listen.” He released Javed’s nose, and Javed tried to look attentive.

In the modern world of policing, we have computers. We have statistics. We put the statistics into databases operated by the computers, and then we develop programs that look through the databases for patterns. And so we learn, for example, that on Thursday nights muggings are more likely to occur on Avenue 1 than on Avenue 3.”

When I’m walking home at night, I usually try to walk on Avenue 3,” Javed said.

That was just a hypothetical illustration,” Mr Sapo replied. “Actually, Avenue 4 is safer, except on weekends after 11 pm. But you have the idea.”

Javed nodded, and Mr Sapo continued: “But that was only the beginning. Even an ordinary desktop computer can notice where or when there is more crime. So we send more officers to Avenue 1, and within a few weeks most of the robbers and muggers have moved to Avenue 3. Then we have to compile new statistics and start over again.”

Javed tried to look sympathetic. Mr Sapo looked at Javed, looked at the ceiling, looked back at Javed again and continued: “We needed more than just the numbers on where and when things were happening. We also needed to know who was in these places at what time – criminals and victims.”

Mr Sapo looked at Javed to see it he was following the explanation, so Javed thought he should ask a question that indicated his interest: “How could you find out who was where when?”

Good question,” Mr Sapo said. “Fifteen years ago, we couldn’t. Ten years ago, still very difficult. But then we started getting the data from the NSA – the National Surveillance Agency. When we started plugging in all this data about who called who and when from where – why our computers nearly swooned with happiness! Now the computers had a very good chance of predicting who was going to be robbed on Avenue 1 between 9 and 10 pm on Wednesday, and who was likely to commit the robbery.”

Javed must have looked doubting, or at least puzzled, because Mr Sapo said, “You don’t understand that, do you?”

Not quite,” Javed confessed. “Can your computer really tell you when I’m going to walk to the corner shop to buy some milk?”

No, of course not. But the NSA data, based on your internet and telephone usage, can tell me, say, that there’s a 63% chance that you will be on the street between your flat and the corner shop sometime between 4 and 5 pm on Tuesdays. That might not sound like much by itself, but if you’re in that area every day at about the same time even though you don’t live nearby, and there is a statistically significant increase in robberies during those times, we’re going to want to talk to you.”

Okay,” Javed said. “I understand that. But some things people do aren’t so predictable. Maybe, when I’m just about to go to the shop to buy whatever it is, I get a phone call saying Aunt Maisie has had a stroke, and I should fly to Dubuque to see her before she dies. What then?”

That’s very easy,” Mr Sapo replied. “The NSA doesn’t even need to listen to the phone call – although it could, if that was considered a matter of national security. But it sees the metadata. So it knows that you have received a phone call from Dubuque, it queries the FBI database and finds out that you have relatives in Dubuque, and then it notes that you are ringing an airline that happens to fly to Dubuque; that can all be found out in two minutes. Maybe some of that data is coincidence, and you’re actually flying to Vermont, but it isn’t likely. Anyway, if you do go to Vermont instead, our computer will know that the moment you board the plane, well before you get there.”

Javed was impressed, and his expression must have showed it, because Mr Sapo put his hand on his shoulder, reassuringly, not at all in a way that threatened Javed’s nose. This encouraged Javed to ask another question: “Is that why you’ve come here today? To tell me I’m in danger of being robbed when I walk to the local shop?”

Very solemnly, Mr Sapo shook his head. “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but our Predpol computer calculates that there is a 72% chance that you will commit a property felony in the next three months. We’re here to protect you from committing a crime, not from being a victim.”

Javed was stunned. For at least 30 seconds, he couldn’t say anything. Then he managed, “But, no, I, why, no, never have, why would, I don’t understand, a mistake.”

A 72.13% chance, to be precise,” said Mr Sapo.

A property crime?” Javed managed. “You mean stealing? Or robbing a bank? I don’t even have a gun. I have a steady job at Sammy’s Books. I’m not rich, but I don’t need to steal to get by.”

Predpol knows a few things you don’t know yet,” Mr Sapo said. “The crucial one is that you have a 97.2% chance of losing your job in the next two weeks. And very little chance of finding a new one in any reasonable time frame.”

That can’t be right. Sammy wouldn’t fire me. He relies on me; he said that just two days ago.”

Don’t blame Sammy. He is very pleased with you. But bookstores aren’t such a secure business any more – people buy on the internet, or they buy electronic books. The Predpol computer says that Sammy is due for some unpleasant surprises this week, plus his rent is likely to go up. He might be able to keep going for a while if he operates the shop by himself, but there’s no way he’ll be able to go on employing you or anyone else.”

Javed made one more unsuccessful attempt to wake up. Then he decided he might as well continue with the dream or the reality, whichever it was. “So you’re saying that the computer knows I’m going to lose my job, and I won’t be able to find another one? And so, after a while, I’ll get desperate and try to rob a bank or hold someone up on the street?”

The computer, based on your history, says that burglary is 43% more likely than mugging. Bank robbery, not a concern.”

I’m stunned,” Javed admitted.

People usually are,” Mr Sapo said. “Predpol isn’t as widely known as it deserves to be.”

But what happens now?” Javed asked. “Are you going to put me in jail because there’s a 72% chance that I’ll commit a burglary if I’m left free?”

The law doesn’t yet allow us to do that. There are other alternatives.” Mr Sapo made a brief gesture with his left forefinger, and the policemen released Javed’s arms. “But before I go into those, I would ask you to do something for your government. Please don’t tell Sammy what I have told you about his economic future. It wouldn’t be good for the economy if it were known that some people have that kind of knowledge.”

Uh, okay.”

Mr Sapo stared directly into his eyes. “Promise?”

Oh. Yeah, okay. I promise.”

Good,” said Mr Sapo. “Now, for the alternatives. There are two. One, we go away, you go back to your usual life, lose your job, get desperate and try a burglary. We already know you’re likely to do that, so it won’t be hard to catch you when you do.”

Javed thought about that. It didn’t sound very attractive. “What’s the other alternative?”

That you help us, and we help you. Off the record, of course. There are some people who rarely use electronic communications, so it’s hard to find out in advance if they’re up to no good. You, in the bookstore, would only need to tell us if someone spent a lot of time browsing books about explosives or communism or something else dangerous, and we could put that into the computer and help make everyone safer.”

But you said I’m going to lose the job,” Javed objected.

If things continue as they are. But if you agree to our proposal, we can arrange things quietly so that Sammy’s position improves. He won’t know – he’ll think it’s just good luck. So you’ll still have your job, and you won’t be on the streets thinking about burglaries.”

Javed was torn as well as stunned. This sounds Orwellian.”

Orwell?” replied Mr Sapo. “That’s old hat. We can do things he never dreamed of. So, what do you say?”

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