Is Predictive Policing Biased?
by Timothy P. Brown
The primary purpose of cinema is to make a subject dramatically interesting. Filmmakers identify situations or moments in time when people are confronted with a human or societal crisis and invite the viewer to experience them through imaginative identification.
Law enforcement’s use of big data and policing technologies engenders similar conflicts, providing the substance for thoughtful analysis, and great cinematic storytelling. I have identified three films that address this topic in dramatic fashion: Enemy of the State, Minority Report, and, most recently, Anon. Each film identifies conflicts that drive the narrative, placing law enforcement and big data policing at the center of the conflict.
ENEMY OF THE STATE (1998)
“The only privacy that’s left is the inside of your head.”
Enemy of the State(1998), directed by Tony Scott, is a spy-thriller that begins by identifying a conflict right away: privacy or national security. The opening scene takes place at Occuquan Park, Maryland, at 0645 hours, where NSA Security Advisor, Thomas Brian Reynolds (Jon Voight) and his team of NSA agents murder Congressman Phillip Hammersley (Jason Robards) who refuses to support the passage of the Telecommunications, Security and Privacy Act. The NSA agents use their access to national intelligence systems to uncover anything that may expose their clandestine operation. The agents intercept a telephone call from Daniel Zavitz, a nature photographer, who confesses to inadvertently recording the Hammersley murder through a motion-activated camera he planted in the park. Zavitz is tracked down by the NSA and dies in a traffic accident while trying to escape, but not before he runs into an old college friend, Robert Clayton Dean (Will Smith), an attorney from Georgetown. Zavitz placed the videotape inside Dean’s shopping bag, making him the NSA’s new primary target.
The computational machinery that the NSA uses to track Dean’s whereabouts becomes the cinematic fuel that drives the subsequent action scenes. The NSA agents use tracers to track Dean’s cell phone, pager, shoes, watch, pants, and pen and satellite imagery to pinpoint his locations. Dean’s credit cards are canceled, he is fired from his job, his wife kicks him out of the house, and his friend, Rachel Banks (Lisa Bonet) is murdered. Dean’s life appears doomed until he meets his informant in an ongoing mob case, Brill (Gene Hackman). Brill (discovered later by the NSA as Edward Lyle, a formal NSA agent) reluctantly joins Dean in taking down the corrupt NSA agents. The film heads towards its dramatic conclusion when Dean manufactures a conflict between the mob boss, Pintero (Tom Sizemore) and the NSA who vie for possession the videotape.
A gun battle ensues and multiple people are killed, with the exception of several “Ops,” a few restaurant employees, and Dean who later crawls out from under a table.
The film concludes with Larry King’s newscast about the privacy act, and Dean’s wife Carla (Regina King) posing the question:
“Who is going to monitor the monitors of the monitors?”
MINORITY REPORT (1982)
“Algorithms and big data models simply take inputs,
Andrew Ferguson, How Cops Are Using Algorithms to Predict Crimes, Wired, (YouTube)
Minority Report(2002) by Stephen Spielberg is a science fiction film that is set in Washington D.C and Northern Virginia in the year 2054. The conflict that drives the plot is predictive policing. Can the system prevent crime from ever occurring or is it tainted by bias and human flaws? The movie stars Tom Cruise, as John Anderton, Chief of Precrime, who uses an amalgamation of data to pinpoint where people are located and determines what day and time crimes will occur. The algorithms used to generate and compile the data are fictionalized in the form of three psychics or Precogs, who use their collective powers to see crimes before they happen. The Precrime department assures “that every American can bank on the utter infallibility of this system.” Captain Anderson, who has complete faith in the system’s accuracy, is challenged by Danny Witwer (played by Colin Farrell) who is sent to investigate the system’s effectiveness:
“What are you looking for?”
“There hasn’t been a murder in six years. There is nothing wrong with the system, it is perfect.”
“Perfect, I agree. But if there’s a flaw, it’s human. It always is.”
A critical juncture in the film occurs when Captain Anderton confirms Witwer’s suspicions and discovers the existence of a Minority Report. The report includes inconsistencies noted in the Precogs pre-visions.
A sub-plot is introduced that makes gender an important factor in the film’s development. One of the three Precogs is a woman named Abigail, the system’s most valued asset. Captain Anderton uncovers the truth about Abigail and confronts Director Lamar Burgess (Max von Sydow):
“I just wanted to congratulate you. You did it.”
“You created a world without murder.”
“And all you had to do is kill someone to do it.”
Abigail was the progeny of Ann Lively, a former “junkie” who later cleaned herself up and demanded to have her daughter back. Burgess kills Lively and stages two murders, one recognized by the Precogs as the “real” crime, and the other as an “echo,” which he knew the system would reject.
The film ends by calling into the question the film’s essential conflict: Can predictive policing maintain its objective integrity or is it threatened by human motivation?
“What is the world coming to when our murderers don’t tell us who they are?”
Anon directed by Andrew Niccol, is a futuristic sci-fi-techno-film that identifies anonymity as the central challenge that law enforcement faces to ensure absolute transparency. Building on some of the themes introduced in Minority Report, crime prevention depends on a pervasive system of surveillance that makes anonymity a threat to the social order. As detective Charles Gattis (Colm Feore) makes clear:
“We rely on transparency. We can’t control what we can’t see. We require persistent identity.”
In this high tech futuristic society, computational data is accessed through the mind’s eye of every citizen. The average person can view, share, upload, and exchange information (photos, memories, financial transactions), but law enforcement has special access to proxies and portals that allow them to access any past event.
In the film, detective Sal Frieland (played by Clive Owens) is the main protagonist who is assigned to lead an investigation into a series of murders. The case is difficult to solve because the suspect is anonymous.
The police department suspects a female as the murderer, the personification of “Anon” (Amanda Seyfried), otherwise known as “The Girl.” Law enforcement cannot detect her identity or her whereabouts because she has developed a sophisticated algorithm that erases the memory of those she meets. She is also capable of hacking the mind’s eye of others, forcing them to see what she sees, and erasing their personal memories. Frieland goes under cover as a wealthy stockbroker and hires “The Girl” to erase his memory of a Call Girl (Alyson Bath) - an encounter he purposely arranges in order to discover The Girl’s methods. Frieland inquires into her need to remain anonymous and she responds by revealing the irony of his question:
“You invade my privacy, it’s nothing. I try to get it back, it’s a crime.”
Gender, race, class and sexual orientation are some underlying layers that are slipped into the film, alluding to questionable motivations like bias. For example, a black man is shot while pulling out a bible from his pocket (mistaken for a gun); two lesbian women are shot in the midst of an intimate moment; and a black female house servant is accused (correctly) of stealing jewelry, but is ignored by detective Frieland because he is annoyed by the woman’s presupposed position of privilege. In spite of the fact that every location is documented by sophisticated mapping technologies, human beings still have the tendency to interpret the world subjectively and/or manipulate the technologies to produce less than objective outcomes.
Male dominance in the law enforcement profession is also prevalent throughout, supported by the realization that the actual murderer is a white male, Cyrus Frear (Mark O’Brien), who manages to infiltrate the police department, while simultaneously hacking the The Girl’s algorithms and setting up an anonymous proxy.
The tension between transparency and anonymity is maintained throughout the film, dramatizing the societal conflict between privacy and surveillance that seems virtually impossible to reconcile.
All three films, Enemy of the State, Minority Report, and Anon identify conflicts or a series of conflicts, and develop narratives that are dramatically interesting, forcing us with two plaguing questions that strike at the core of our societal beliefs: Are policing technologies flawless and factual or are they tainted by bias and human flaws? Is public safety a priority or is it privacy and individual rights?
Museum Educator and Tech Blogger