Pre-Crime at Hot Docs

Creeping with the surveillance state

Doodling the surveillance state

I promised to be more timely with my Hot Docs reviews this year, so here I am.

I was back in T.O. on Saturday in time to witness the world premiere of Pre-Crime; an investigation into new police practices that use technology and data to ‘predict’ crime and apprehend criminals. This is demonstrated to be a growing area of activity, with plenty of reasons to be concerned about it. The seriousness of the subject and the lack of information out there make this a must-see film.

The doc in itself is not bad but not awesome. The Co-Director and narrator is one of those skinny eccentric men with a persona somewhere between Keith Richards and Christo. Definitely a smoker and probably a vegetarian. (I can say that because of all my eccentric skinny vegetarian smoker friends). He inserts himself into the film in what works out as an unintentional parody of directors-in-films. Not that this is necessarily bad film-making. It’s just not what the heart wants these days.

Most of the surveillance activities revealed are on the shocking-and-unfair side of the ledger. There’s a very important issue for Artificial Intelligence prediction and its statistical basis, which by nature is not going to be correct all the time (it’s working with probability). Not the ideal model for criminal justice. For instance, one implication of the data is that being a victim of crime is as compromising to your privacy as perpetrating a crime.

Perhaps the most debatable intervention is the use of intense camera coverage to rapidly respond to a crime or situation in progress. This initiative was featured and explored in some detail in a great Radiolab podcast last year. The approach really straddles the line between life-saving and intrusive. Of note, this technology is used after a crime has occurred, and not to predict crime, but of course the cameras are pointed on high crime neighbourhoods. If I’m opposed to this kind of policing, I am not confident that I should be. Though it does perhaps break every law and ruling in place to protect personal privacy in the pre-digital era, it also seems like a great way to solve crimes and save people in danger - if we can ensure proper use. Maybe there’s the rub!