Can Magical Computers Solve Crimes Before They Happen

That should be the title of this headline:

At around 3:45 a.m. on March 24, someone in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., used a mobile phone to Google “chemicals to passout a person.” Then the person searched for “making people faint.” Then Google again, for “ways to kill people in their sleep,” “how to suffocate someone,” and “how to poison someone.”

The phone belonged to 23-year-old Nicole Okrzesik. Later that morning, police allege, she and her boyfriend strangled 19-year-old Juliana Mensch as she slept on the floor of their apartment. The Google searches, along with incriminating text messages between Okrzesik and her boyfriend, came to light as authorities investigated Mensch’s death. But what if they could have been alerted to the suspicious-sounding searches immediately? Could they have rushed to the apartment and saved the girl’s life?

Can you guess where this is going? Yup, Slate is hypothesizing the use of search data to effectively go pre-crime on peoples’ asses:

Web search data, by contrast, contains information about specific individuals’ thoughts and plans. In theory, Google or could have flagged Okrzesik’s search queries as suspicious and sent the cops her device’s IP address. In the Hollywood script, a vigilant officer would notice the alert, rush to the scene, and knock on the door just as Mensch’s assailants were about to do her in.

In reality, there are a few obstacles that scenario. For starters, police would need instant access to the search data and a way to connect it to a physical address. These days they usually get electronic records only after a crime has been committed and they’ve built up enough evidence to obtain a warrant. They use the data not to prevent crime but to build their case for arrest and conviction.

There is also another obstacle to Slate’s scenario, people search for shit they have no intention of doing all the time. While I’ve never smoked marijuana before yet I often search of marijuana related topics for blog posts, historical information, and genuine curiosity. I’ve searched for terms like “can X kill somebody” where X is a random chemical because I’m simply curious. If somebody went through my search history they would probably think I’m quite the suspicious individual. I’m sure the search string “how long can a person survive without oxygen” would raise a few red flags in a law enforcement database (for those of you who are curious the answer appears to be somewhere between three to five minutes).

Yet the next three Google searches on Okrzesik’s phone—“ways to kill people in their sleep,” “how to suffocate someone,” and “how to poison someone”—seem to clearly indicate that someone has a strong curiosity about how to kill someone. One can also imagine other searches—say, a series of queries about the ingredients used to make anthrax—that law enforcement agents might like to know about.

Yeah, because law enforcement’s time should be wasted looking into a kid who was just wondering what antrax is and how it’s made.

Computers aren’t magic, they can’t predict crime. Using search terms to predict crime is absurd. People search for strings that appear criminal in nature all the time. Sometimes the people are looking for a recent story related to a crime, sometimes they’re interested in case histories surrounding such crimes, and sometimes they’re just curious if such a crime could be perpetrated.

It’s unfortunate that people who don’t understand computers have bestowed these wonderful electronic devices with mythical powers. Articles like this remind me of those yahoos who think the Venus Project is a good idea. If you’re not familiar with the Venus Project count your blessings, it’s an idiotic idea to centrally control economics with a super computer in order to bring forth utopia. How we’re suppose to build a computer that can control an entire economy when we can’t even build one that can accurately predict the stock market still remains unanswered.

Computers, like any other tool, is very good at performing the task they were build for. If you need to crunch numbers a computer is the right tool for the job. If you need to predict human behavior computers are all but entirely worthless. In order to build a computer that can do something we must first know how to do it. Since we can’t predict human behavior there is no way we can build a computer to do it. These people who talk seriously about using computers to solve crimes before they happy are living in a fantasy land made possible by a complete ignorance of computer technology.

Unfortunately other people who are ignorant of computer technology will latch onto this and think it’s a good idea. Thus this idiocy will continue to perpetuate.