Pre-Crime – How AI may be used to predict crime before it happens

29-09-2021 |   |  By Robin Mitchell

Police in the US has been utilising a software tool called ShadowDragon to create profiles and look for links to criminality in people of key interest. However, recent reports show that ShadowDragon can do more than just reduce background check times; it may actually predict crimes before they occur.

Why is social media a major challenge for law enforcement?

When crimes are committed, it is the job of law enforcement to find the perpetrators involved and their accomplices. This is achieved using multiple methods, including crime scene investigation, interviews with key individuals, and creating criminal profiles.

While criminals of the past would communicate in person, over the phone, and through written letters, most modern criminals use social media and instant messaging services to communicate. Depending on the intelligence of the criminal, this can either be a blessing or a curse for modern law enforcement for several reasons.

If encrypted systems are not used, any and all messages are sent unencrypted, allowing law enforcement to examine anything sent. However, a basic level of encryption (such as TLS) is enough to make decryption next to impossible, and this is easily done.

Another challenge law enforcement faces is the mass amount of data available on social media and other sites where users can post content. One would think that such information would be a gold mine to investigators. The truth is that the massive amounts of data can make it challenging to manage, track, and find relationships between various data.

Furthermore, users can create aliases that use random profile pictures, random names, and random geolocations specifically designed to be difficult to track. This problem is made worse with AI software that can generate human faces that are entirely computer-generated.

Police in the US found to be using ShadowDragon – What is it?

A recent freedom of information request in the US has shown that some police forces and immigration services have been using software called ShadowDragon to help gather social media data, analyse it, and create profiles of suspected individuals. The software has been stated as being a game-changer and can compress several months’ work on data gathering and analysis to mere minutes. But what exactly is ShadowDragon?

ShadowDragon is a software tool that can crawl the internet and gather social media data related to a specific search enquiry. It can then visualise how this data is related to each other while also spotting aliases that relate to an individual. Furthermore, ShadowDragon can then reveal the identities of those found and create profiles of people of key interest. Data that ShadowDragon can obtain include geolocation, hobbies, interests, and behavioural patterns, which can all be useful for investigations.

However, what has gotten some worried about such software is that it claims that it can even be used to predict crimes before they even occur. By searching social media for posts and feeding these into an AI that compares the posts of others who have committed crimes, it can determine the credibility of a threat and someone’s intentions. Some readers may recognise this as the plot to Minority Report whereby a police force of the future has a Pre-Crime division that looks for criminals before they act.

Is ShadowDragon a solution or a curse in the fight against crime?

The ability to use AI to crawl the internet for information on criminals can provide great benefits to law enforcement by reducing the time taken to garner useful information. Creating a profile of an individual can help narrow down the list of suspects to a crime. Furthermore, finding patterns of a relationship between individuals to identify potential accomplices can also help identify potential groups of criminals who work together.

However, using such data to predict crimes is extremely dangerous and raises the same questions in the film “Minority Report”. Technically, there is nothing wrong with intercepting an individual who may or may not commit a crime to prevent the crime from taking place; this is how policing works in some instances, such as cops on the beat and random stops and searches.

However, should an individual who has been stopped from committing a future crime be punished? Technically speaking, the individual never committed the crime, and while the intention may be provable in court, this could be difficult if an AI determined the intention. This would be even more challenging when considering that AI cannot explain its process; if an AI cannot explain its result, how can a jury be expected to take the AI result on faith?

There is no doubt that the ShadowDragon software is pure genius, and its use will definitely improve the ability of law enforcement to do their job. However, caution must be aired when using such software to gather data on those who have not committed crimes, or worse, using such software to arrest those who are accused of a crime that hasn’t even been committed.


By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.

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