Big-Data: Predicting Crime

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Jan 26

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There is a lot of noise in the media about the morality of the American NSA “spying” on its citizens.

Equally, in some quarters, there is a lot of talk about big-data and the huge impact it is going to have on everyone’s life. Even Prime Minister David Cameron is singing its praises and putting it at the heart of improving healthcare in the UK. Many experts are claiming it is the new catalyst revolutionizing innovation and productivity whilst generating huge savings in both the private and public sectors.

According to the McKinsey Global Institute, big-data is potentially worth euro 250bn per annum to Europe’s public sector administration, with claims the UK government could save approximately GB pound 30bn a year by capitalizing on big-data.

What’s so big about data?

However, many people are predicting the worst, in terms of individual privacy. So, what exactly is big-data?

Well, it is actually what it claims, a virtually unfathomable amount of electronic information. According to IBM, 2.5 quintillian bytes of data are created every day with a staggering 2.7 zettabytes of data estimated to have been accumulated by 2012.

Customer records, text messages, digital images, sound, and video, technical information, email and social media comments, mobile phones, and GPS, etc. all produce data, which has grown exponentially since 1993 when 3 percent of the world’s data was stored electronically compared with over 90 percent in the last two years.

Big brother

So, aside from the huge information security aspects, what exactly does it mean to the security industry, and to human rights? We have just witnessed the release of the UK Government’s new Surveillance Camera Code of Practice, meant to assure the public of the strict and ethical use of video surveillance, which since the early 90s has played a major role in supporting and protecting the public.

This proliferation of surveillance cameras has led some people to compare the UK to the Orwellian society depicted in George Orwell’s 1984. Fortunately, the majority of the public has remained supportive of this key weapon in the safety and security armoury. However, does the use of big-data risk altering the dynamics and alienating the public, as security systems and sensors, surveillance cameras, ANPR, access control, GPS, RFID, video analytics, and biometrics add considerable and often personal data to the big-data pool?

Is technology leading us towards the frightening world portrayed in the Spielberg science fiction thriller Minority Report, where murders are predicted and stopped before they happen? Predicting the future is already standard practice in a number of areas — weather forecasting being a classic example, and we know how accurate that is. So should we be concerned that big-data is already being used for “predictive policing”?

Such tactics have been successfully deployed in some 15 separate trials across the US, including Seattle and Los Angeles, where, in the Foothills Police division, crime was cut by 12 percent in four months. Trials are also underway in the UK by Kent Police.

Clearly, these organizations have not resorted to the use of psychics. They rely on giant computers, using powerful algorithms and analytics to predict crime patterns. Originally developed to predict aftershock patterns following earthquakes, crime data software maps years of past crime information, which is updated daily with the location, time, and type of crime committed, and mixed with human behaviour analysis to predict and identify crime hot spots, highlighting where there is a high probability of a criminal event taking place. Add in facial recognition and you have an extremely powerful tool.

According to Oxford professor Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and journalist for the Economist, Kenneth Cukier:

Big data will ultimately allow us to predict the future. It can tell us things like what we’ll buy and when, when the price of a new gadget will drop, and which people are most likely to commit a crime.

Clearly, there is an increasing issue in balancing evermore diverse and growing security risks with human rights and individual freedom. We are certainly living in interesting times.


This article was first published in IFSEC Global at

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