Mead 2017: Pre-Crime Director Matthias Heeder on the Rise of Predictive Policing

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Philip K. Dick’s The Minority Report, a sci-fi short story that imagines police attempting to prevent crime before it ever occurs, was published more than 60 years ago. But thanks to new technologies, 20th-century science fiction is starting to become 21st century reality.

In their film Pre-Crime, screening at the Margaret Mead Film Festival on Saturday, October 21 at 8 pm, directors Matthias Heeder and Monika Hielscher explore how algorithm-based surveillance techniques are being used in cities like Chicago and London to target individuals based on personal data.

 


Heeder—who'll be in attendance at the Mead screening, the film's New York premiere—recently spoke to us about the power and perils of predictive policing.

How did you come to make this film?

Me and Monika, my wife and co-director of this film, read an article about Chicago police producing a list of names of people who are most likely to commit a crime, working with an algorithm. We felt there was just a moment of Hollywood fiction merged with reality. We are very much interested as filmmakers in how to describe the transition we’re in. It’s so difficult because no one wants to talk about data protection and privacy. 

How does the algorithm behind predictive policing software work—and does it really work?

There’s the trigger event, the first criminal act, and from there we can, based on statistics, predict where the next crime will happen. Software like PredPol is focused on burglary and doesn’t work with personal data, it only works with police data. The Chicago heat list, however, aims at individual—that’s the big difference. But what’s the reason to spend millions to develop a program like that, but still the number of murders are soaring? It’s just another tool to look at crime, but it’s not preventing anything.

 


Primer on predictive policing by Mead partner NBC News Mach.

In the film, you follow a man named Robert McDaniel, whom Chicago police placed on their heat-list even though he had no prior major offenses. Police visited his home, informed him he was on the list, and warned him of the consequences should he commit a crime. How could this happen?

All his neighbors turned away, and his friends… From what I understood, his whole life had been turned around by this event. The reason he found himself on this list was his best friend had been shot. If you’re in the system, and black, and poor, you give police reasons to look even closer. And there is no way to get off the list once you’re on it.

 

Man stands at an intersection near a traffic light and looks off into the distance.

Robert McDaniel

Courtesy of Kloos & Co. Medien


How does law enforcement’s approach in the U.S. compare to Europe and the U.K. when it comes to using private data and new technology?  

The heat list in Chicago, scoring people by name, wouldn’t be possible in continental Europe, because we have so many data protection laws. They make it impossible to work with it on a crime-fighting basis.

In the U.K., it’s different. They use what’s called the matrix in the U.K. to track gang members to predict future crimes. [Gang members] are informed by police with a letter stating that in the database, they were identified as a potential major criminal. They introduced the joint enterprise law, which is a legal code that had been invented in the 18th century to fight the number of duels occurring between men. It meant basically that if I am joining duel, and I don’t hinder it because I’m there, then I’m guilty. Transformed for the 21st century, if one of the gang members you’re associated with commits a crime, we look at you because you didn’t prevent it. Hundreds of black English citizens are in prisons because of joint enterprise.

 

Multiple screens show the activity on various street corners.

Surveillance camera footage.

Courtesy of Kloos & Co. Medien


What did you learn while making this film that alarmed you the most?

I was in the States starting in the 1970s. The change in the last 10 years has been incredible. With the Patriot Act, the fact that you can be arrested and can’t meet your lawyer if you’re suspected of being a terrorist… On the one hand, the government has more and more data on me, and I have no idea what to do with that fact, and that we’re giving it away voluntarily. I fear being in a box, and living in a surveillance economy.

 

Pre-Crime is co-presented by NBC News MACH.

For more information on films and screenings, visit the Margaret Mead Film Festival website.