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A Guy Just Can't Commit a Crime Nowadays

· Big Data Zone

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It’s getting harder and harder to get away with things, even in the biggest crowds…and especially in the biggest crowds. The London riots last year were captured in incredible detail by not just London’s ubiquitous street cameras, but by thousands of people in the streets, both good and bad, on smartphones.

You’d think that people committing mayhem would be aware and would want to avoid the camera, but instead they seem to revel in being captured in the act. They mugged for the camera, apparently proud of their behavior.

Closer to home

We live in LA and saw the coverage of the riot that took place last weekend in Huntington Beach, not far from where we live (and one of our favorite beach spots). Just like in London, the number of people capturing the goings on far outnumbered the people rioting. Within hours, in fact, Facebook was abuzz with the images of one rioter in particular who used a street sign to smashed a bike shop window. The public was more than happy to post and share the image of the scruffy kid, arms raised in victory after his act. He’ll undoubtedly be caught.

It’s a new age

Huntington BeachThe days of physical evidence, like fingerprints and hair and fiber…the CSI kind of stuff, are being replaced by the age of data evidence at a rapid rate. Facial recognition software performing machine learningmakes the task of identifying people far easier than even what the human eye can achieve (for the computer, a face is ‘mathematical’, even if the image is blurry). Those old school tools still matter, to be sure, but where a first-hand account of the crime isn’t available. We developed forensics for the times where we didn’t have an eye witness or a camera.


Even more, the ability for today’s technology to capture yesterday’s criminal is changing the story of crime and punishment. When DNA became available for investigation, people were both convicted and set free based on evidence collected years before the technology existed. The same goes for video, where facial recognition can identify someone in a video shot decades ago. In fact, we can now process video and create a record of every time an individual appears on any camera in ‘the database.’

So where does this take us? How much privacy is lost in the use of technology to solve crimes? Do we need to intentionally silo data to prevent the creation of a database of ruin? Author Paul Ohm describes this database as:

Many businesses today find themselves locked in an arms race with competitors to see who can convert customer secrets into the most pennies. To try to win, they are building perfect digital dossiers, to use a phrase coined by Daniel Solove, massive data stores containing hundreds, if not thousands or tens of thousands, of facts about every member of our society. In my work, I’ve argued that these databases will grow to connect every individual to at least one closely guarded secret. This might be a secret about a medical condition, family history, or personal preference. It is a secret that, if revealed, would cause more than embarrassment or shame; it would lead to serious, concrete, devastating harm.

While we may not today be close to such a database, the technologies we love for their crime solving potential can just as easily be used for nefarious purposes. This is exactly why Alistair Croll is so prescient in his piece on Big Data being the civil rights issue of our day.

So what to do about it?

We haven’t fully identified the problem yet, so we’re still several steps away from the solution that will keep Big Data and other technology from causing harm. A sure fire first step, however, is to develop standards for data collection and governance that lessen the risk and offer a trail of who accessed data and for what purpose. In the haste to collect and analyze, the need for governance is pushed to the side until a crisis makes it a necessary part of how data gets used. The NSA’s Prism project raised that spector, but the public outcry in the places most affected (the US and UK) hasn’t been great enough to change things…yet.

I’ll leave you with these two photos from the LA TImes taken during the Huntington Beach riot.

Huntington Beach Before and After

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Published at DZone with permission of Christopher Taylor, DZone MVB. See the original article here.

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