Stopping crime before it happens is the perfect martial dream. It can save time, resources, and even lives. But for the average citizen, the idea of preventive crime monitoring is more like a science fiction nightmare from Steven Spielberg’s 2002 tech thriller/Tom Cruise vehicle Minority Report.
The pitfalls of pre-crime monitoring are central to Spielberg’s underlying horror where, in the future, clairvoyant beings “previsualize” violent crimes before they happen. All is well until the beings previsualize a crime nobody expects to happen, setting off a 145-minute chain of Academy Award-nominated events.
Minority Report’s claims about free will could keep a philosophy class going for hours, but the real relevance of the film, as with any serious science fiction, is in its prophetic power. No, we don’t have superhuman psychic mutants, but we do have big data, and as early as 2005, some U.S. police departments were using predictive tech to effectively identify negative trends and reduce crime in certain cities, like Memphis and Minneapolis. But that was more than a decade ago. A lot has changed since then, and the evolutionary rate shows no sign of cessation. We’re more connected now, and more and more of our lives are being sent to the cloud. As a result, we’ve laid a strong groundwork for a total surveillance society.
Though some people are okay with the techno-Faustian bargain we’ve bought into, most are still unsettled by the idea and the potentials of digital surveillance. Even with pre-crime tech entering its teen years, recent news of China’s recent foray into pre-crime monitoring is rustling some feathers and bringing the field to a pivotal ethical crossroads. The tech isn’t going away, and it’s only going to get better. The challenge will be: how do we do it so we don’t all end up like Tom Cruise on the run?
China’s pre-crime monitoring program, developed by state-run defense contractor China Electronics Technology Group, reportedly captures data on “jobs, hobbies, consumption habits, and other behavior of ordinary citizens” to predict potential crimes, writes Bloomberg reporter Shai Oster. There’s nothing notable about the data capture—just look at the digital advertising industry—but for crime surveillance purposes, its intentions are far more suspect. Especially in China’s program, where “there are no safeguards from [Chinese] privacy protection laws and minimal pushback from civil liberty advocates and companies,” adds Oster.
Surveillance is a mechanism of power, and without legal safeguards or civil, corporate or public pushback, the technology can evolve unchecked. The U.S. has its own safeguards in place—at least on paper—which is why Apple was able to refuse the FBI access to the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone a few weeks ago (until a hacker came by to help the agency circumvent the issue). The safeguards are in place to guard the privacy of the American public, but in the eyes of the state, they’re like duct tape over the state’s camera lens. But because privacy laws in China are overwhelmingly favorable to the state over its public, writes Patrick Tucker at Defense One, “China is poised to emerge as a leader” in pre-crime monitoring technology.
China’s growing leadership position in pre-crime tech is founded on a military paradigm that favors domestic security over military spending. According to Tucker, China increased its security spending in 2011 by 13 percent to a total of 624 billion yen ($5.6 billion), over military spending at 601 billion yen ($5.4 billion). The increase in spending allowed the Chinese government to launch a national program, “requiring 650 Chinese cities to reform their public security and safety infrastructures with state-of-the-art technologies,” according to a 2013 report from Homeland Security Research. Technologies in the overhaul include tracking technologies, video surveillance, physical identity and access management, cyber security, physical security information management, and other surveillance hardware and software.
This tech ramp-up is part of a greater Chinese effort towards “social governance,” or “social management,” which—though difficult to define in English—is distinct from government oversight of economic and state governance: Instead, it speaks to how “the government manages and regulates social affairs, social organizations and social life, with the guidance of law,” according to East Asia Forum. The push comes from the changes spurred by China’s increased urbanization, where the government is increasingly expected to maintain social stability. Including general social affairs in this larger state oversight effort is one piece of the larger surveillance pie, and with digital tech integral to modern social affairs, it makes practical sense for states to drive resources towards social surveillance.
To officiate the strength and scope of these resources, China drafted a new cybersecurity law last year authorizing “broad powers to control the flow of information,” writes Austin Ramzy at the New York Times. Recognizing the democratizing ideology of open Internet, China already has in place restrictive Internet laws, and the new draft law says that the state’s Internet information department is “responsible for comprehensively planning and coordinating network security efforts and related supervision and management efforts.” And instead of creating new cybersecurity initiatives, the new draft law instead elevates extant practices and regulations to the state level, ensuring the centralization and efficacy of state surveillance power.
Asked whether China’s increased spending on domestic security is part of a greater global trend, Adam Segal, the Maurice R. Greenberg senior fellow for China studies and director of the Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program, said the tech is instead being driven by China’s specific “concerns about social protests and threats to domestic control”—or what it calls terrorism. In a March 4 article for Defense One, Segal argued that despite the locality of its efforts, China is looking to the global stage as a reference and defense for their anti-terrorism surveillance, stating that the provisions of the cybersecurity and data collection laws are in accordance with “international common practices.”
In his article Segal adds, "The desire for data may only intensify under Xi Jinping’s leadership; the Chinese Communist Party appears increasingly worried about domestic stability and the spread of information within the country’s borders." It’s not something China takes lightly, either, if you recall the 2010 incident in Xinjiang where the state ended ten straight months of Internet blockage in the region following deadly, racially charged riots between the Muslim Uighurs and the Chinese Han. China blamed overseas groups using the Internet for inciting the violence, and shut down regional access to curb information sharing. The riots left around 197 people dead and another 1,600 injured and fit the context for China’s definition of terrorism, which its pre-crime monitoring program is now attempting to curb.
“When the Chinese refer to cyber terrorism,” Segal added in an interview, “they are referring to the spread of extremist ideas as well as the promotion of violence—say, sharing of how to construct IEDs.” China’s pre-crime monitoring program will flag any terrorist-like behavior, such as sudden influxes of cash, frequency of international calls, and other analyzed trends, allowing authorities to target specific instigators, freeze their accounts, and open up further information inquiries—to stop any terrorist acts before they happen. “The issue for the U.S.,” adds Segal, “is that some forms of speech the Chinese consider terrorist—‘splittism’ from Uighur or Tibetan activists—the U.S., would likely consider legitimate public discourse.”
And here’s the grind, that one person’s terrorism is another’s free speech. “Since all algorithms and data gathering are inherently political,” Segal says. “The system, if possible, would seem ripe for abuse.” Power is concerned with self-preservation, and pre-crime monitoring, using big data and analytics for its support, is another tool in this arsenal. But the technology won’t stop, and it will only get better—especially as more of modern life gets sent to the cloud. For pre-crime monitoring to advance, be effective, and avoid Minority Report-scale misapplication, it will need to prioritize ethics over returns.