AI can help catch criminals, whatever ‘experts’ say – Tom Wood

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Fingerprints, DNA and CCTV were all resisted when they were introduced as crime-fighting tools, so it’s no surprise that self-appointed experts are making a fuss about the use of artificial intelligence by police, writes Tom Wood.

Following the theme of ‘Groundhog Day’ in our political world, I was drawn to a recent story about an ongoing battle to block technological advances in profiling and crime prevention on ethical grounds.

It’s a strange tale. West Midlands Police, on behalf of English forces, is trialling a scheme called the National Analytics Solution, which will use cutting-edge artificial intelligence to analyse data with a view to predicting crime hotspots and offending patterns.

On the face of it, it’s a ‘so what’ story. After all, it’s only a ‘techie’ way of doing what local police collators have been doing for 100 years.

At a basic level, it’s common sense, most crime is petty and committed by young men, therefore the more young men in your community, the more crime. A high instance of illegal drug use will drive an increase in acquisitive crime, a high level of alcohol use will bring violence. Poorer areas will always have a higher crime rate than more affluent ones and if you live in a poor area you are much more likely to become a repeat victim. As for offending, once convicted of a crime you are much more likely to be caught for another but the good news is that a life of crime is hard and most grow out of it by the age of 30.

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All this is well known and, as far as it goes, has always informed policing plans. So what is the problem that has got the Independent Digital Ethics Panel for Policing and the Alan Turing Foundation so determined to resist such “ominously invasive techniques”. Even the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to privacy has waded in, suggesting that “artificial intelligence can profile people and predict their behaviour in such a way as to make them manipulable”. In plain speak, the use of technology may actually encourage offenders to offend.

It’s a bit far-fetched but what is it that has such worthy bodies in such high dudgeon. Well, it’s the fear and loathing of technology of course and here we see a familiar trend. For, over the years, just about every technological advance in crime management has been resisted on ethical grounds, as if crime, with all its personal tragedy, was a game to be played fairly, even if only by one side.

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Of course there must be rules and there are – the rules of evidence as applied by the courts, not by arbitrary and often self-appointed bodies. These scrutiny groups fascinate me, not for their predictable membership but for the large group of people who are almost never represented – victims. I suspect their deliberations may be somewhat different with the benefit of the justice system’s ultimate service users. But of course that’s not how it works, such bodies are always populated by ‘professionals’ while victims are pitied, patronised and largely ignored.

But West Midlands Police should take heart, its National Analytics Solution is in good company. The technique of fingerprinting was resisted staunchly for 30 years, despite the fact that fingerprints eliminated as many as it convicted. CCTC was also condemned as unethical and intrusive yet with proper controls has gone on to become a significant deterrent and a valuable tool in investigating crime. The development of DNA followed a similar path, resisted despite the fact that like fingerprints its use has cleared as many as it had convicted.

In the end, they all survived the resistance to take their place in the toolbox of techniques that we use to manage crime. And the National Analytics Solution will follow suit. Such advances are vital, with reduced resources and increasing demand, we need all the help we can get.

Tom Wood is a writer and former Deputy Chief Constable