Crime can be predicted says new film

Everyone dreads the knock on the door from the police. And now there’s reason to fear that knock, according to a documentary film just released..

Pre-crime: coming soon to a cinema near you. And already here in your mobile phone.


Now police can  – and will – call on you BEFORE you have done anything wrong. Just because you live near a crime scene or were acquainted with the victim of a crime, that puts your personal data into a list of potential suspects who maybe become involved in lawbreaking. You are in a state of pre-crime. So the police are tracking your every move – through social media, mobile devices, payments, searches, CCTV and all your networks of contacts.

This is not a science fiction movie, picking up from where Tom Cruise left off in Hollywood blockbuster Minority Report (based on the novel by Philip K. Dick)This is a documentary filmed in Chicago, USA, Liverpool and Tottenham, UK, Berlin, Germany and the outer banlieux (housing estates) of Paris, France. Experts explain how they write algorithms that predict with pinpoint accuracy who is likely to commit offences. It is an eerie portent of what life could easily become like in the 21st century where not only the police but also the medical community will be sifting through our data looking for warning signs and then calling us in – meaning that we will quite literally fear the ring of the phone, telling us that in our surveilled lives that we are either about to do something wrong or that we have something wrong with us.

The “eye in the sky” sees all

We witness the knock on the door and the shock on the face of the young black man whose friend has been murdered and who now finds himself, and his whole neighbourhood, labelled as “pre-criminal”.

What when it’s your child, when they come knockin’ on your door? What when it’s you?

he asks, and the question is not at all rhetorical, as the rest of the film makes clear. This is not a dystopian vision of the future of policing, but a timely reveal: it is already happening now in 2017.


We watch in ghoulish fascination as a light aircraft observes a female police officer’s car being rammed by three other cars, as she is shot dead and they make their getaway across Chicago – only to find that the law enforcement officers are waiting for them at the exact spots where they dump their getaway vehicles – thanks to a lifestream of information and Google Earth images from the airplane pilot’s “eye in the sky”.

Of course this can only be a good thing,  from a law-and-order point of view. In western Europe and the USA, under economic austerity, police workforces have been cut to save public funds. So have defence budgets. Instead the authorities are availing themselves of people’s personal communications data in order to predict crime hotspots and deploy scarce resources more efficiently. Kent Police Inspector Mark Arnold tells the documentary makers he is proud of the success of the PredPol predictive policing software in cutting the number of gun crimes. Community leaders in Tottenham and Liverpool disagree, arguing that the mathematical predictions unfairly target young black men, because they are more likely to be stopped and searched due to controversial “racial profiling” of suspects. So a greater pool of data already exists in police records of those sort of people, making them statistically more likely to be surveilled.

Award-winning documentary makers

Pre-Crime is produced by German award-winning Stephan Kloos (Last man in Aleppo, Bugs) and directed by Monika Hielscher and Matthias Heeder. They have also won numerous awards during a twenty-year collaboration. And it is surely no accident that a German documentary crew was inspired to make this film, for the data protection and privacy rules under Chancellor Angela Merkel are now more stringent than in the UK and the rest of Europe. She is also gunning for the social media networks with a new law that will see Google, Facebook et al face massive fines if they fail to promptly remove so-called “hate speech” and “fake news”. Perhaps Mrs Merkel is still smarting from Edward Snowden”s revelation that her own personal mobile phone was being snooped on by former US President Obama? In any event, she has certainly cracked down on privacy breaches since then.

As an entertaining night out, this film does not have much to recommend it. The pace is slow, the dialogue is in multiple different languages with subtitles in only one language, and the attempts to portray the digital world in big-screen visuals are rather lame. But Pre-Crime is not meant to be an entertainment. It’s a wake-up call. Is anyone listening?