The United States is by no means leading the way on this one: the notion that a state could safely and effectively institutionalize “crime prediction” before crime happens by employing some “Orwellian” techniques, and then acting on these to prevent a predicted crime.
In fact, the US is trailing behind countries like China and the UK, who either already have such law enforcement systems in place, or are busy testing them.
However, there are two clear points that, in a broader context, differentiate the US effort that has now been outlined in Attorney General William Barr's memorandum published on Wednesday. First, the big picture: the US is a bigger democracy, either in terms of quality or quantity, than China or the UK. And second, the type of crime Barr is gunning for is by and large endemic to the US – it's specific: “potential mass shootings.”
This kind of serious crime represents not only a major public safety concern, and likely a symptom of deeper and more complex societal ills that eventually give rise to it – it is also, when it happens, an unadulterated nightmare for politicians forced to deal with the aftermath.
The plan laid out by Barr dubbed as “pre-crime” reminiscent of dystopian fiction, will target individuals based on their use of electronic consumer products and the contents of their communications with their friends, family, co-workers, and more.
The proposals are similar, if not more invasive than the recent announced bill that plans to increase student surveillance in order to reduce the likelihood of school shootings.
Barr's memorandum, meanwhile, speaks about the ways the US law enforcement would act to efficiently, effectively, and programmatically stop those planning to commit acts of mass violence, using “all lawful means.”
The memorandum also reveals that the US now plans to put to use domestically its post 9/11 anti-terrorism experience, in the past applied in other countries.
The plan is to bring in opinions of “clinical psychologists, threat assessment professionals, intervention teams and community groups” together with the goal of “identifying potential threat.”
And although the program rests on the basis of many of the post 9/11 “war on terror” stalwarts, bringing in the FBI and the Department of Justice (DoJ) – it does differentiate the traditional notion of a terrorist from merely a criminal that the new program is aimed at identifying and stopping before they act.
According to the memorandum, your average “traditional” terrorist might be evil – but not crazy.
However – “many of today's public safety threats appear abruptly and with sometimes only ambiguous indications of intent,” the document said, adding that many “exhibit symptoms of mental illness and/or have substance abuse problems.”
With that in mind, the upcoming program will circumvent these issues by finding new and likely controversial ways to determine intent and Barr's recent actions suggest that the way this will be accomplished is through increased mass surveillance of everyday Americans and the use of algorithms to analyze that mass data for vague symptoms of “mental illness.”