Following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, many have voiced concern – and rightly so – about the use of Big Data for political or commercial purposes. While dark scenarios envision Big Data as a tool that could be used to create Big Brother ubiquitous societies, here is a refreshing perspective: the use of big data isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It could even help police forces save lives.
Last week, Israel’s Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, who oversees the national police force, said Israel’s use of algorithms and other technology has been an important factor in lowering the number of knife and shooting attacks in recent years. Overall, Israeli security forces have foiled 200 attacks by monitoring social media and identifying suspicious profiles ahead of time.
Israel is at the forefront of online monitoring for preemptive detection of would-be criminals. Two months ago, the press disclosed that one of Israel’s largest high-tech firms, Verint, works on a software for facial recognition , which scrapes information from social media to create a gigantic database for use of security forces in their preventive work to counter terrorist attacks.
This recent development is all the more logical that terrorist organizations have systematically used social media as a means to recruit and instruct candidates for attacks. In 2015, following the shooting in San Bernardino, attention was brought to the fact that US Visa screenings authorities missed San Bernardino shooters’ radical postings on Facebook. After the shooting, authorities said Facebook posts by the shooters , a couple by the name of Malik, expressed support for violent jihad since 2012.
Similarly, in an attack claimed by ISIS, Uzbek immigrant Sayfullo Saipov was charged with the death of eight people after ploughing into them in a truck in downtown Manhattan on Oct. 31, 2017. The New York Police Department’s Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence and Counterterrorism John Miller told journalists that Saipov appeared
“to have followed almost exactly to a ‘T’ the instructions that ISIS has put out in its social media channels before, with instructions to their followers on how to carry out such an attack .”
Beyond terrorist attacks prevention, big data analytics are also used for crime prevention, on a global scale. Back in 2016, in a speech screened to 1.5 million officials, Alibaba Chairman Jack Ma urged law-enforcement agencies to use internet data as a tool to identify criminals. An Alibaba spokeswoman said:
“We believe harnessing big data analytics in applications like crime prevention and detection is an example of how data technology can play a part to protect the people and drive the society’s efficiency.”
More recently, in the United States, thirty-one states have allowed law-enforcement officials to access license photos to help identify potential suspects. While there should be checks and balances because of the risk of mis-identifying suspects using facial recognition software, good results have already convinced local police in many states that digital facial recognition is
“a more automated, (…) efficient way.”
In addition to data created by the actions we take online, and governmental and private databases, algorithms are also increasingly relying on an analysis of our physical responses in the real world. According to Dr. Kozlovski, a law professor at Yale’s Cyberlaw Center, video analysis algorithms can now identify a person trying to avoid eye-contact. Sensors can now detect a higher than usual breath rate, pupil dilation, sweating and muscle stiffness. Dr Kozlovski explains:
“The techniques are getting better and better”
In light of the moral and legal questions that new powerful algorithms raise, let’s keep in mind that technology is neither good of evil, it is neutral. It’s what we do with it that matters.