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I read this article on the BBC today.  It sounds like fiction (very much so, as we will discover later), but predictive analytics technology – the ability to predict where and when crime will occur – already exists.

The computer program does it by analysing past crime stats, police activities, and various other things.  It will tell you things like “a violent assault will occur in such-and-such a neighbourhood in the next few hours”.  Not very specific, but enough to get increased police patrols in that area and hopefully stop the crime before it starts.

It was towards the end of the article that I started to get flashes of déjà vu.  They began discussing CCTV and how it could be used to fight crime (though opinions, of course, vary on how effective it is).  And then they suggested that combining CCTV footage with predictive analytics might give good results.  A small scale version is already in operation in the US, run by a company called Trapwire.

And then I read this:

The firm collects data from CCTV cameras and number plate readers in an attempt to forecast acts of terrorism.

And I began to think that all of this sounded very very familiar.  As in:

“You are being watched. The government has a secret system: a machine that spies on you every hour of every day. I know because I built it. I designed the machine to detect acts of terror, but it sees everything. Violent crimes involving ordinary people, people like you. Crimes the government considered irrelevant. They wouldn’t act, so I decided I would. But I needed a partner, someone with the skills to intervene. Hunted by the authorities, we work in secret. You’ll never find us, but victim or perpetrator, if your number’s up…we’ll find you.”

Which is the voice-over from the title sequences of “Person of Interest”.

The concept is simple: when Harold Finch (not his real name) worked for the government, he built a machine which uses CCTV footage, government databases, and so on, to predict violent crime.  It was only supposed to predict terrorist plots, but he made it too well.  The government just ignores all of the other crimes the machine predicts, but Harold had a crisis of conscience and wanted to do something about them.  He built a back-door into the machine, and every day it provides him with the social security numbers of people who will soon be involved in violent crime.

He and his partner, John Reese (former Green Beret, may or may not be his real name) then spend the episode trying to save the person involved.  Or stop them.  Sometimes the machine gives them the number of the bad guys, and they don’t have any way of knowing which they have until they start investigating.

The show is a fun romp – crime drama with a little something extra.  They so far (and I’ve only watched half the first season) have managed to throw enough twists in that each episode is different.  I particularly enjoy the slightly adversarial relationship the pair have with the local cops.  One dirty cop, who they’re blackmailing to help them, and one clean cop, who is determined to catch the vigilantes and arrest them.  And when the clean cop’s number comes out of the machine, well, that episode was highly entertaining.

I have a horrible feeling that the hints of meta-plot that keep appearing are going to get in the way of the fun, but maybe I’ll be wrong.  Only time will tell.  On the whole, though, definitely one to watch. 

If you have made up a new world for your novel, how do they deal with crime and punishment?

The prison service have recently opened a restaurant in Wales, staffed by low-risk convicts.  The restaurant is quite posh, but the convicts are only earning £12 per week.  Not a lot, but is it fair?

They are gaining experience and qualifications out of it; some people pay to gain those.  They have, essentially, free room and board, since they are living at the prison.  And, they are supposed to be being punished.

On the other hand, are they taking jobs from the fine, upstanding, normal folk?  That seems to be the main objection to the scheme.

Anyway, back to the point.

Some cultures go for locking offenders away, some for public whippings, some for execution.  Some go for more financial punishments, or mind control.  Some go for incentives to prevent crime and corruption.  I read a book once where the financial estate of those chosen as leader of the country was blended with the state monies, and they got the same proportion back at the end of their term.  Good incentive to help the country’s economy!

Whatever method is chosen, there are consequences.  If you lock offenders up you need to  pay for their upkeep, and have the risk that they might revolt.  Mind control has moral implications.  Using incentives requires a plan for when they fail.

How well thought through is your legal system?

The Author

Nicola Higgins is a 30-something martial artist who runs two Brownie packs and works full time. She somehow still finds time to write.

Her favourite genres are near-future and alternate world science fiction and fantasy.

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