Coding 2 Learn

Education and Technology Ramblings with a little Politics for good measure.


I'm not the first blogger to highlight the similarities between the Snowden revelations and Philip K. Dick's excellent short story - The Minority Report. I'll brush over the fact that most commentators seem to have forgotten, or be unaware, that the concept of Precrime did not first appear in the inferior adaptation of the short-story, staring a certain Scientologist, and push on with my point. (By the way, if you haven't read the Minority Report, stop reading this now and go and read something written by someone with talent and vision. Then go and read all his other stories that were so stunningly ruined by Hollywood, including Screamers, We can remember it for you wholesale, Paycheck and The Adjustment Team. (Do Androids dream of electric sheep? and A Scanner Darkly were well made adaptations but still worth reading.))

The concept put forward in The Minority Report, was that three mutant humans with powers of precognition, are able to view events up to about two-weeks into the future. They babble relentlessly in an unintelligible way about what they can see and the data is hoovered up by computers for processing. The computers are then able to produce punch-cards showing when, where and by whom a crime will be committed. The would-be perpetrators are arrested and imprisoned before they are able to commit the crime. The entire system is called Precrime.

The parallels with the current events surrounding NSA/GCHQ data gathering and Precrime are fairly obvious and so I'll gloss over them by stating that it is potentially possible for an agency to examine the data from your phone calls, texts, browsing habits and social network interactions, and then profile you. This profile could match with that of known criminals and hence provide an agency with motivation to investigate you more thoroughly. Perhaps it would be enough for them to judge you a sufficient risk to society that you could be rendered and imprisoned without trial.

What most people seem to fail to understand was that Dick did not espouse the opinion that Precrime itself was a dangerous issue. The short story, if anything, judges Precrime to be an important step forward for mankind and the protagonist in the story sacrifices himself in order to preserve its sanctity. The twist in the story was not that Precrime is fundamentally flawed, but that under certain rare and unique circumstances Precrime can fail to make accurate predictions. Those circumstances are when feedback occurs.

Feedback in The Minority Report occurs because the protagonist is able to see the predictions made by the Precogs and hence alter his own future. In the story, this is in turn foreseen by one of the Precogs who makes a differing prediction of the future, which the protagonist also becomes aware of. This leads the third Precog to make a further prediction, which turns out to be the correct one.

In the story the ability to feedback into the system is unique to the protagonist. He is the only one who can see the predictions made by the Precogs and therefore create the paradoxes. In our digital world however, feedback is integral to the data gathering systems and this is why the very concept of profiling people based upon their digital signatures is so dangerous.

I buy a book on Amazon. I like the book. I give it a five-star rating. Amazon's algorithms are able to make predictions on what other books I might like. A second book is recommended to me, which I buy, like and rate. The process continues. This system relies on feedback and can lead to me buying and rating books on subjects from an increasingly niche area of literature. I start by reading a Victorian History, then a biography of a Victorian gentleman, then a biography of a Victorian policeman, then a biography of Jack the Ripper, and all of a sudden I'm in serial killer territory. I'm being recommended books about and by serial killers despite the fact that I might never initially have shown any interest. All of a sudden I'm caught in a feedback loop. If anyone was to look at my reading habits they might leap to assumptions regarding my obsession with violent sociopaths.

I receive a re-tweeted comment from a person I follow on Twitter, regarding a miscarriage of justice. I follow the OP. Twitter algorithms suggests others I might like to follow. I start to follow others who tweet about social injustice and heavy-handed state actions. Before I know it I could be following some of the most politically extreme activists out there and all of a sudden I'm pigeon-holed with them.

I've read the word radicalisation so much in the press now that I'm sure to many it ceases to have any real meaning. My worry is that radicalisation can occur fairly easily in an internet age where there is so much information available, it is impossible for a human to choose what they will read, watch or listen to next. When we walk into a newsagents and purchase a paper we might browse the dozen or so headlines on the front page and then make out decision as to which paper to buy. When we browse for material on the internet the sheer volume of data makes this impossible. Instead we rely on social networks to advise us through friends or advertisements or recommendations. We rely on news aggregators and forums that lend themselves to community bias. We are no longer making free choices as to what we might want to see. Instead, hidden algorithms make those choices for us. These algorithms are fallible and I am sure they can lead to radicalisation.

I'll use myself as an example. Two-years ago I would have been in the 'If you've nothing to hide you've got nothing to fear' camp. The Snowden revelations wouldn't have bothered me in the slightest. Since then my reading browsing habits have changed. I read Hacker News daily, I follow the @EFF and Pirate Party founder @Falkvinge on Twitter. My RSS feed contains nothing but technology and digital-freedom blogs. All of a sudden I'm blogging about The Second Amendment in the 21st Century and how I've quit the cloud. It's difficult to know whether I care about this because of what I've read on the internet or that I read about this stuff on the internet because I care.

If there is one message that I take from The Minority Report it's not that gathering data on individuals is unethical. It's that in a world where feedback is so integral to our systems, profiling people based upon their data is a fundamentally flawed concept.