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Could Cops Use Google As Pre-Cogs? 376

Posted by timothy
from the oh-sure-that's-easy dept.
theodp writes "Remember the Pre-Cogs in Minority Report? Slate's Will Oremus does, and wonders if Google could similarly help the police apprehend criminals based on foreknowledge collected from searches. Oremus writes: '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 Ask.com 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.' In theory, Oremus muses, Google or Ask.com could have flagged Okrzesik's search queries as suspicious and dispatched cops to the scene before Mensch's assailants had the chance to do her in." I bet you're already thinking of just a few reasons why this might not such a good idea.
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Could Cops Use Google As Pre-Cogs?

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  • bad idea (Score:5, Insightful)

    by beh (4759) * on Thursday June 07, 2012 @10:08AM (#40243875)

    Hmm - what reasons could there be to legitimately do these kinds of searches?

      - checking whether something seen on some crime drama actually makes sense
      - checking whether a stupid newspaper story makes sense
      - checking whether an outrageous story from a neighbour makes any sense
      - looking for ideas to write a crime novel
      - learning about the effects of certain things, say, for medical interests (medical students)

    Either way - what people do should be what people do on their own; locking people up because
    they MIGHT do something is a very bad precedent. And where will you stop?

    Will you allow someone to a gas station and fill up their car after they had a bad fight with their
    partner, whom they know will have to cross a road somewhere in the next hour? Or should you lock
    them up after the fight? (independently of whether you or your partner started the fight)?

    How about filling your car, and going for drinks later - having a car with a full tank of gas at
    your disposal afterwards? Time to lock you up?

    Sure, at a guess, looking up 'ways to kill people in their sleep' I would also think makes you
    more likely a potential murderer than filling up your car. But, where do you draw the line on
    what's legitimate and what isn't?

    Also, maybe after you read how painful or possibly difficult your goal is - who's to say that
    reading about it might not actually lead you to give up the thought? And then you still get
    locked up because of something you looked up, where the result of the search itself already
    deterred you (though, obviously, that can't be seen in any google search strings - you just
    stop searching)...

    Also, the only goal you'd reach is that now a potential murderer has to break in somewhere
    only to look up how to murder someone - and then the wrong person would get arrested...
    (...which might give the best possible version - look it up on the victim's computer - get them arrested!)

    There are so many ways to screw this up - as bad as it is, until someone _actually_ tries
    to go through with it, don't interfere...

    The pre-cog route will just make things a LOT worse for civil liberties / personal freedom.

  • Re:bad idea (Score:4, Insightful)

    by P-niiice (1703362) on Thursday June 07, 2012 @10:12AM (#40243921)
    What reasons could there be to legitimately do these kinds of searches is none of you damn business.

    I search stuff I want to know all the time. I've searched some horrible, horrible things but never wanted to do them. This is ridiculous and should never be used. But of course, it will eventually. It had already been mentioned that searched using the word torrent would one day be seen as suspicious and possibly prosecuted.
  • Re:bad idea (Score:5, Insightful)

    by P-niiice (1703362) on Thursday June 07, 2012 @10:13AM (#40243951)
    and yes I didn't read the parent post but it is none of anyones business - i was that angry.
  • by djsmiley (752149) <djsmiley2k@gmail.com> on Thursday June 07, 2012 @10:15AM (#40243983) Homepage Journal

    So.... you google how much salt would kill someone, and how pepper makes you sneeze. Later that day your housemate sneezes and a pot of salt falls onto them killing them (Hey, it *could* happen).

    This is as about related as killing someone by gas/chemicals as killing someone by strangulation is.

  • The Future Is Now (Score:5, Insightful)

    by jimmerz28 (1928616) on Thursday June 07, 2012 @10:18AM (#40244027)

    People who use "encryption", care about "security" and things like "transparency" are already under suspicion of committing terrorist acts.

    If you have a brain you're suspicious.

    http://truth-out.org/news/item/9618-newly-released-fbi-domestic-terrorism-training [truth-out.org]

  • by rolfwind (528248) on Thursday June 07, 2012 @10:21AM (#40244061)

    Let's be real, once implemented, only retards would use google without tor or whatever to do searches. And there'd still be a ton of false positives from people searching interesting things out of idle curiosity, research, verifying what they saw on TV, writing a book, etc.

  • by Fishbulb (32296) on Thursday June 07, 2012 @10:23AM (#40244085)

    Who decides what is 'suspicious'?

    The really insidious part is this:

    [...] help the police apprehend criminals based on foreknowledge [...]

    If they haven't committed a crime yet, they're not yet a criminal. Period.

  • Re:bad idea (Score:5, Insightful)

    by idontgno (624372) on Thursday June 07, 2012 @10:23AM (#40244087) Journal

    Actually, you're both right, in the sense that (A) there are many "legitimate", non-suspicious reasons to search for "controversial" subjects, and (B) more importantly, no search has to justify its own "legitimacy" (which is your point) because of fundamental rights of privacy, particularly investigation without due process and probable cause.

    GPP was suggesting perfectly good answers to a question. You're pointing out that the question shouldn't have to be answered at all without some other evidence-based reasonable suspicion.

  • by kheldan (1460303) on Thursday June 07, 2012 @10:24AM (#40244111) Journal
    When Minority Report first came out in theatres, I was intrigued and went to see it. It's the only movie I've ever walked out on. Why? Because the very idea of being arrested and convicted of a crime you haven't yet convicted pissed me off to the point where I couldn't stand to watch another minute, so I left. Some years later I made myself watch the whole movie on TV but you get the point. This is the Slippery Slope that makes all previous slippery slopes look like absolute Amateur Night. Police, prosecutors, and judges are all just human beings, and we've all seen examples of all the above engaging in prejudicial or just plain careless behaviour, arresting and convicting people based on their own personal bias or worse. The last thing we need is phantom data on "potential" crimes that haven't yet been committed being used as a reason to arrest someone. This isn't even considering how such a thing would be used for political purposes; no one would be safe from arrest ever again.
  • Re:bad idea (Score:5, Insightful)

    by nurb432 (527695) on Thursday June 07, 2012 @10:26AM (#40244137) Homepage Journal

    Or you are just curious.

    I may be curious how a H-bomb works, but i don't have any plans on making one. ( even if i could.. )

  • Re:bad idea (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday June 07, 2012 @10:26AM (#40244141)

    No.

  • by cbelt3 (741637) <cbelt@yaho o . c om> on Thursday June 07, 2012 @10:36AM (#40244243) Journal

    A quite logical extension of such thinking. When it comes to liberty of thought, the road to Orwell's 1984 is paved with 'good ideas' gone wrong.

    In the late 1970's I purchased a copy (paper) of "the Anarchist's Handbook". Why ? I was doing research for a story I was writing for a Creative Writing class in college. I already *knew* how to make explosives.. I was an Engineering student !

    Criminalizing people for their knowledge would mean that pretty much every Engineer will end up in jail. Yeah... that will definitely not help a modern world.

  • by betterunixthanunix (980855) on Thursday June 07, 2012 @10:37AM (#40244251)

    It's not a popular notion, but it's unreasonable to expect privacy in public acts like searches conducted through a third party website (Google).

    It is reasonable to demand privacy in your search history. I do not want my health insurance company to know that I was searching for information about a particular kind of disease. I do not want my bank to know that I was searching for information about bankruptcy proceedings. I do not want anyone to know about the sort of pornography that I search for.

    To put things in perspective, the law mandates that video rental records be private. Now, if walking into a video store and renting a video is something that we can do with an expectation of privacy, a web search is certainly something we should expect to be private.

  • Re:bad idea (Score:5, Insightful)

    by AngryDeuce (2205124) on Thursday June 07, 2012 @10:41AM (#40244307)

    A million times this. I'm a Wikipedia junky (obligatory xkcd [xkcd.com]) that searches things out of raw curiosity with no applicable reason whatsoever. I've also done my share of looking at gore photos, crime scene photographs, things of that nature. I'm totally non-violent and would never hurt a fly, but if the police were to start looking at my search history and profiling me based on that alone, they'd probably want to keep a closer eye on me anyway "just in case".

    Just because a particular subject interests me, that doesn't mean I'm going to emulate it. Morbid fascination does not equal intent, whether now or in the future.

    It amazes me how many supposedly educated people would support things like this. This is basically just another step down the road to thought police [wikipedia.org] and telescreens [wikipedia.org]. Doubleplusungood.

  • Re:NO (Score:5, Insightful)

    by teslar (706653) on Thursday June 07, 2012 @10:44AM (#40244353)

    No. Our constitution doesn't allow you to be arrested for thinking about committing a crime, only for committing one.

    You'd be surprised [wikipedia.org]

  • Re:bad idea (Score:5, Insightful)

    by TWX (665546) on Thursday June 07, 2012 @10:53AM (#40244517)
    Correct. Unless there's a very strong correlation that one behavior overwhelmingly leads to another that is a crime, then using one's research to attempt to predict a crime will lead to nothing more than the police showing up to essentially ask you if you're going to commit a crime. Even if you were, you simply say, "I'm sorry officer, but I have no legal obligation to speak with you on this or any other matter."

    Seeing as how they can't really compel you to spend too much time with them until they arrest you, and if they do arrest you they must then provide you with legal counsel, this would not work in any way for a lot of potential criminals, as one's lawyer would also basically tell you to say nothing at all.

    Until there's at least a crime-in-progress, you haven't done anything. Conspiracy to commit is difficult when there's no crime either, especially if there isn't even any materiel for a crime. Even then, one could research a crime, gather supplies for a crime, and be almost to the point of committing a crime, but then at the last moment, decide not to commit the crime. Still no crime has been committed.
  • by TubeSteak (669689) on Thursday June 07, 2012 @11:14AM (#40244835) Journal

    To put things in perspective, the law mandates that video rental records be private.

    That's because someone walked into a record store and pulled up the rental history of a sitting Supreme Court Justice.
    Many legislators have zero problem with privacy invading laws because they always assume it won't be used on them.
    The second that changed, they shit their pants and passed a law that protected everyone within the year.

    If you want real reform, we need the cops to start treating judges and legislators like they treat young black men in NY City.

  • mostly bad idea (Score:5, Insightful)

    by tverbeek (457094) on Thursday June 07, 2012 @11:43AM (#40245257) Homepage

    There are all sorts of problems with this idea, of course. Oodles of them. But it isn't entirely without merit. The authorities cannot (at least under current legal doctrine) charge you with a crime you might commit in the future, and I don't think they ever should. But if you're figuring out how to kill someone, and the cops show up at your door saying "we think you're planning to kill someone and you'll be the first person we talk to if someone is killed", that's going to be a rather strong deterrent, and probably prevent that crime. The question is whether it can be done without irreparable harm to personal liberties... and I doubt that.

It is much easier to suggest solutions when you know nothing about the problem.

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