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Australian “pre-crime” surveillance tool faces scrutiny

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A secretive software surveillance tool used by the Australian police in the state of Victoria is coming under scrutiny for identifying, profiling and tracking young people as potential criminals.

The tool is secretive because it helps the police create secret “pre-crime” lists of youths monitored in this way, and was being kept away from the public eye before information about it emerged from a research paper and in interviews with police officers.

The interviews were only published in 2020, while the program and the software tool, whose name also remains a secret, has been in use at least between 2016 and 2018 – a period that the research covers – creating lists of what the police named youth network offenders and core youth network offenders. It’s unclear from the response the Victoria police gave to Guardian Australia if the program is still being used.

Groups like the Flemington-Kensington Legal Center believe that the tool may have been used before 2016.

The tool seemed to have been “tested” in a relatively small area – Melbourne’s suburb Dandenong and its surroundings, resulting in between 40 to 60 youths being categorized as core youth network offenders, while the other category contained a list of 240 names.

This area is said to be home to a population that is both among Australia’s most ethnically and racially diverse and also poor, with low income and high unemployment rates.

Reports citing the research paper say that including someone in the “core” group required them to accumulate at least 20 unspecified “offenses” if they were in the 10 to 14 age group, at least 30 for 15-to-17 year-olds, and over 60 for those between the ages of 18 and 22.

The paper is the work of Monash University associate professor Leanne Weber, who reported that police officers she spoke to praised the tool as having 95% accuracy in predicting how many crimes a 15 year-old from one of the lists would commit by the time they turned 21.

These revelations about the Australian police program raise broader questions and concerns about the way law enforcement around the world increasingly relies on data collection to track and profile people, particularly in disadvantaged communities.

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