How the Future Crime Database Will Work

Pre-crime prosecution: the wave of the future?
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­Crime stories, especially stories about violent cri­mes, are often at the top of local news broadcasts. The news anchor explains the gory details of the murder, gives some background information about the victim and details the progress that law enforcement has made toward solving the crime­. But imagine if the news anchor instead said something like, "Today John Doe was arrested by law enforcement for the future crime of murdering his wife."

In the film "Minority Report," people with precognition (a form of ESP in which a person learns information about future events) provide a law enforcement department known as Pre-Crime with the names of both murderer and murder victim. Images relating to the murders are transferred to a computer so that officers can examine them to get more information. Instead of being arrested for crimes, people in the film are arrested for crimes that they would have committed.


Although the movie takes place in 2054 and is based on a science-fiction story, some people believe that Pre-Crime prosecution could actually become commonplace in the future. The realm of the paranormal has not yet entered into it, but a real-life future crime database would instead be based on a number of elements that could be interpreted as pointing toward future criminal activity.

If you've committed a crime, some of your personal information is probably already stored in various databases. Exactly what is stored depends on where you live and the nature of your offense. But proponents of future crime databases suggest that they include information about people who have never committed a crime. As this idea has gotten more attention, so has the concern over potential civil liberties violations. In short, future-crime databases are highly controversial.

Before we speculate about all of the possibilities, let's take a look at the databases that currently exist, starting with DNA databases in the United Kingdom and the United States.


National DNA Databases

What do those DNA markers say about you?
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In 1999, the Home Office of the British government created the National DNA Database (NDNAD). Initially, the NDNAD consisted of samples taken by police from people charged with a crime. If the person was later cleared of the crime, the samples were removed from the database. The 2003 Criminal Justice and Police Act allowed police to take DNA samples from everyone who had been arrested, even if they weren't charged with a crime in the end. These samples were kept indefinitely. At this point, the database consisted solely of DNA from people who had been arrested for a specific range of crimes.

In 2006, several crimes that had previously been unarrestable, such as not wearing a seat belt, were made arrestable. This increased the number of people­ whose DNA samples were added to the NDNAD. Supporters said that more than twice as many crimes had been solved using DNA samples in 2005 as had been solved in 1999 [source: Slack]. The United Kingdom's DNA database is now the second-largest in the world, with more than 4 million entries.


A number of those samples are from children, who have been arrested for everything from littering to skipping out on bus fares. According to Gary Pugh, the director of forensic sciences at Scotland Yard, any child who exhibits behaviors that may indicate a potential for committing crime in the future should have a sample of his DNA included in the database. Pugh stated that "We have to find who are possibly going to be the biggest threat to society" [source: Townsend and Asthana].

In the United States, the FBI funds a nationwide system called NDIS (National DNA Index System). It officially began operating in 1994. It differs from the U.K. DNA Database in that smaller databases called CODIS (Combined DNA Index System) exist on state and local levels. Each crime laboratory in the country controls which information it shares with the national database. As of 2007, the NDIS had more than 4.5 million profiles.

Like the DNA database in the United Kingdom, the NDIS started as a way to index DNA samples from violent criminals (in this case, convicted sex offenders). Gradually it expanded to include almost all convicted felons. Some states collect DNA samples from all people who have been arrested, including children. In 2004, voters in California passed Proposition 69. Within that state, law enforcement officials can collect DNA samples from anyone arrested for a felony, as well as certain misdemeanors. DNA can also be collected from illegal immigrants for any reason.

New DNA techniques and databases continue to evolve. A company called DNAPrint Genomics sells a product called DNAWitness, which locates Ancestry Informative Markers in DNA samples. The companies claim that these markers can break down the racial makeup of the DNA and help to narrow down suspects based on race. Although it can't perfectly determine the race of a suspect, the owners of DNAPrint Genomics claim that the margin of error is negligible. Most law enforcement departments have yet to use DNAWitness, citing concerns over racial profiling.

DNA is just one aspect of building a future crime database. We'll look at other types of criminal databases next.


Crime Prevention Databases

Could a "lethality score" help prevent violent crime?
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There are several different databases that collect information other than DNA. In the United States, the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) tracks information directly related to crimes, including records of convicted sex offenders, parolees and foreign fugitives. It also contains the names and activities of people involved in gangs or terrorist organizations. States tend to have a number of different databases with various types of crime-related information. Not only can they help to solve crimes by locating criminals, law enforcement officials can use the information contained in these types of databases to recognize trends.

In 2006, London's Metropolitan Police formed the Violent Crime Directorate, which seeks to target violent offenders. Within the directorate is the Homicide Prevention Unit, which attempts to ferret out the people most likely to commit violent crimes. The behavioral analysts within this unit create psychological profiles, using data gathered from the people who have come in contact with the potential criminal -- including mental health workers. Like DNA databases, this information can be used to solve existing crimes. But the intention is also to find criminals before they commit the crime and intervene in some way. Depending on the unit's findings, police could simply monitor the person. Or they could receive assistance from social or mental health services.


The Homicide Prevention Unit is in the process of creating a list of the most potentially dangerous people in London. Senior criminal psychologist Laura Richards stated "My vision is that we know across London who the top 100 people are. We need to know who we are targeting. Then we have the opportunity to stop something turning into a lethal event" [source: Bannerman].

The United States does not yet have a similar program in an official capacity, although some databases and programs are being developed in universities. Richard Berk, a professor of criminology and statistics at the University of Pennsylvania, has been working on a program that could be used to determine future murderers since 2006. His project was funded in part by the National Science Foundation. Using data from probation cases in Philadelphia, Berk and his colleagues chose around 30 different variables ranging from age at first crime to abuse as a child. They created an algorithm that weighs each factor and gives each offender a "lethality score." In this way, the parolees more likely to commit violent crimes could be monitored more closely.

A future crime database could roll information already being collected in various ways into one master database, starting with DNA and other identifying information (like fingerprints, retinal scans and face scans). It could also include personal data -- such as family, employment and economic status -- and histories of mental health and behavioral problems. While some of this information is already accessible by law enforcement officials, most of it is not. It takes a lot of money to collect all of the information and maintain the database. The NDIS costs hundreds of billions of dollars per year, and there is a huge backlog of data to be entered.

It would also take a lot of time to determine how to weigh specific elements, which elements were most important and how best to rank potential criminals. Finally, creating a future crime database would require some serious debate over privacy rights as well as the creation of many pieces of legislation. And as you might imagine, civil liberties groups aren't pleased with that idea. In the next section, we'll examine some of the criticisms of the existing databases and the challenges with creating a nationwide future crime database.


Obstacles, Criticism & Possibilities

Barbed wire surrounds the cemetery of the Manzanar War Relocation Center, where 10,000 Japanese-American citizens and Japanese aliens were interned during World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
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The United Kingdom's National DNA Database (NDNAD) has been received with mounting criticism at each change. Many people have wondered why the government has not simply required everyone to submit a sample instead of slowly broadening its coverage to include more and more citizens. They call for more openness on the part of the government.

Parents, educators and many child behaviorists have been especially bothered by the suggestion that all children deemed to display behavioral problems or tendencies should have samples of their DNA put into the database. They feel that it is unfair to punish a child for something that he only might do, but has not yet done, and that inclusion into the database can only create a stigma and possibly cause problems for the child.


A representative of one British civil rights group, Liberty, pointed out that there is a disproportionate number of ethnic minorities in the database, which could lead to racial profiling. Specific socio-economic groups are already thought by many analysts to be more prone to violent crime; some critics argue that classification in a database could exacerbate the problem and reinforce stereotypes. The director of human rights watchdog group Privacy International, Simon Davies, said that it is "obscene" for the Metropolitan Police Homicide Prevention Units "to suggest there should be a 'crime idol' list of those who might commit an offence" [source: Bannerman].

Databases in the United States have also come under fire. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has blasted the continued expansions of DNA collection in the CODIS database, citing violations of citizens' right to privacy and the potential for institutionalized discrimination. They argue that DNA is very different from fingerprints in that it contains a vast amount of private information, including mental and physical defects and ancestry.

Every 10 years, census takers collect all kinds of information about the people living in the United States. This data is used for things like apportioning the correct number of seats in the House of Representatives, and it's not available to the public for 72 years after the data was taken. The Census Bureau is currently not allowed to reveal any identifiable information about the individuals they encounter. However, in the past the FBI has legally used census information to identify people. During World War II, it compiled a list of potential enemies of the state, which eventually resulted in the internment of Japanese-Americans. If a national future crime database were in the works, Congress could once again make census data minable by other law enforcement agencies in the name of safety.

Medical and mental health records are currently protected by state and federal privacy laws as well. Doctors and psychologists, for example, cannot release specific information about your condition without written consent from you -- for the most part. There are exceptions; a psychologist in California must break confidentiality if he suspects that you are a danger to yourself or others, or are abusing a child or elderly adult. A judge can also compel a psychologist by court order to speak about your treatment in the course of a trial.

Finally, assuming you have insurance coverage, your insurance company knows all about your various diagnoses. Again, there are privacy laws, but legislation could make all of this information available to law enforcement officials and analysts. The same goes for financial records and employment records.

Concerned? Keep in mind that the "Minority Report" scenario is still a long way off (assuming we ever scientifically prove the validity of pre-cognition); more likely, a future crime database would be used to monitor and treat potential criminals rather than actually arrest them for as-yet-uncommitted crimes. A single drop of your blood could be enough to tell whether you're one of them.

For lots more information about crime and the long arm of the law, see the articles on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • A­CLU: Forensic DNA Databanks
  • Bannerman, Lucy. "Police target dangerous suspects before they can offend." The Times. November 27, 2006.
  • Bannerman, Lucy. "The woman who aims to spot killers before they can strike." Times Online. November 27, 2006.
  • Berk, Richard, et al. "Forensic Murder Within a Population of Probationers and Parolees: A High Stakes Application of Statistical Learning." University of Pennsylvania Department of Criminology. November 27, 2007.
  • "Concerns Over Potential Future Use of DNA of Innocents on National Database." Science Daily. January 14, 2008.
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation. CODIS Unit. U.S. Department of Justice.
  • A Guide to Psychology and its Practice
  • Helm, Toby. "Outrage at 500,000 DNA Database Mistakes." Telegraph. June 20, 2008.,000-DNA-database-mistakes.html
  • Jones, George. "DNA Database 'should include all." Telegraph. October 24, 2006.'should-include-all'.html
  • Metropolitan Police
  • "The National DNA Database." Post Note. Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. February 2006.
  • Newsome, Melba. "A New DNA Test Can ID a Subject's Race, But Police Won't Touch It." Wired. December 20, 2007.
  • "Proposition 69 (DNA)." Office of the Attorney General, Bureau of Forensic Services, State of California. 2007.
  • Slack, James. "Big Brother Britain has World's Biggest DNA Database." The Daily Mail. January 5, 2006.
  • Townsend, Mark and Anushka Asthana. "Put young children on DNA list, urge police." The Observer. March 16, 2008.