In Los Angeles, police are working to track “probable offenders” as part of their Smart Policing Initiative. It doesn’t track people who have committed a crime — it tracks people LAPD thinks will commit a crime in the future.
LAPD uses the tools developed by Palantir Technologies. Palantir made its name working with the CIA in Afghanistan functioning as what Bloomberg called “a spy’s brain,” sifting through massive amounts of data and creating easy-to-follow infographic webs drawing conclusions from those documents.
Police departments from Los Angeles to Chicago to New York fell in love with Palantir and often snare people innocent of any crime in its massive big data dragnet. People and objects pop up in boxes on Palantir screens: “Owner of,” “Colleague of,” “Lives with” — and through that system police and spy agencies can identify more than half of American adults.
Also, it’s not presently clear how much of Palantir’s profiles are obtained properly. Facebook has investigated if Palantir illicitly scooped up user data in a similar mode to Cambridge Analytica, which Palantir has worked with.
If this all sounds sci-fi, that’s because it is. Predictive pre-crime intervention is the core plot element of the 2002 movie Minority Report as well as the 2011 television series Person of Interest. And like in these works of fiction, the real-life investigation begins before any crime is actually committed.
In Los Angeles, it starts with an analyst, who works with Palantir software to create “work ups” on “probable offenders.” The twelve people who score highest on LAPD’s metrics are listed in the “chronic offender bulletin” while nearly a dozen more are kept as “back ups” for that list. In a truly beautiful instance of life dovetailing with art, LAPD calls these people not “suspects,” because no crime has actually been committed, but “persons of interest.”
Officers are apparently aware that being identified as a probable offender is not probable cause, but do interact with probable offenders more frequently in an attempt to catch them committing a crime.
“I feel like they already know who you are by the time they stop you or give you a citation,” one LA resident told the Intercept. “They already know your name and who you are hanging out with.”
It might feel like they already know that because they do. The LAPD’s precrime unit already asked its digital precogs.
Katelyn Kivel is a contributing editor for Grit Post in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @KatelynKivel.