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FBI Seeking ‘Minority Report’ Crime Prediction Software

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

The FBI is seeking to develop software to scan Twitter and Facebook for ’emerging threats’

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has placed an official request on its Website, asking for companies that can develop a mashup application to scan social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook for potential threats.

The mashup application will essentially scan social media Websites searching for particular keywords, phrases and even behaviour, so it can take action before any event. The FBI wants the application to provide information about possible domestic and global threats superimposed onto maps “using mash-up technology”.

Data mining

It is asking companies for their ideas on a potential system that could undertake such a vast ‘data mining’ operation of social networks, and what its cost would be.

“This must be a secure, lightweight Web application portal, using mash-up technology,” the FBI said in its request. “The application must have the ability to rapidly assemble critical open source information and intelligence that will allow the [FBI’s] Strategic Information and Operations Center to quickly vet, identify, and geo-locate breaking events, incidents and emerging threats.”

“The product must have the capacity to allow the user to retain control of cached and real-time proprietary data; the ability to share it with selected partners, and … the ability to adapt quickly to changing threats to maintain the strategic and tactical advantage,” it added.

The FBI wants the application to be extremely flexible and it must be able to adapt to keep ahead of developing threats. It said it must be able to search through websites such as Fox News, Twitter, Facebook, CNN etc for relevant information. It must also automatically filter the data according to definable parameters, and then it must notify users about emerging events and display them on maps (such as those from Google, Yahoo and Bing) where they must be prioritised (colour coded).

Minority Report

While the FBI software would only search through publicly available information, the predictive nature of the software is raising concerns.

The FBI technology would be similar to the Tom Cruise’s sci-fi film ‘Minority Report’, where psychics are used to stop criminals before they commit a crime. Jennifer Lynch, from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told New Scientist that it could erode the sense of freedom provided by the Internet.

“These tools that mine open source data, and presumably store it for a very long time, do away with that kind of privacy. I worry about the effect of that on free speech in the US,” she said.

A spokesman from Privacy International told the BBC that the move risked placing large numbers of people under surveillance.

“Social networks are about connecting people with other people – if one person is the target of police monitoring, there will be a dragnet effect in which dozens, even hundreds, of innocent users also come under surveillance,” Gus Hosein, the group’s executive director was quoted as saying.

“It is not necessarily the case that the more information law enforcement officers have, the safer we will be,” he added. “Police may well find themselves overwhelmed by a flood of personal information, information that is precious to those it concerns but useless for the purposes of crime prevention.”

British bobbies leading the way

Despite the controversy, it may surprise many that the British police are already trying such software. In July, it emerged that two police forces in Britain are testing new technology powered by IBM, which can reportedly help predict when and where crimes will be committed before they happen.

The program, known as Crush (Criminal Reduction Utilising Statistical History), analyses crime records, intelligence briefings, offender profiles, and even weather reports, to identify potential crime hotspots. This allows police forces to assign resources and deploy personnel to those places where crimes are most likely to occur.

And of course, British police already use Facebook routinely in order to ascertain the whereabouts of criminals, such as the infamous case of burglar Craig “Lazie” Lynch, who escaped from jail and then used Facebook to taunt British police over the Christmas period of 2009.