Could Big Data Have As Much Impact As DNA In Prosecutions?

Data could be the key to solving many crimes and freeing innocent prisoners


When DNA became admissible in court in 1988 following Andrews v. Florida, it changed the face of almost every kind of crime, from heavyweight murders through to basic small time fraud cases. Suddenly there was a way to prove beyond reasonable doubt that somebody had been at a specific place or had interacted with a certain object. It is not only in the prosecution of criminals that it has been useful but also in the pardoning of innocent people after they’ve been convicted. According to the ACLU, 273 people had been exonerated of crimes they had been previously been convicted of due to the use of DNA, including 17 prisoners on death row.

However, there may be a new kid on the block that could have similar impacts on how policing, prosecution, and court evidence is collated: Big data.

When you think about it, the kind of data created every day by almost everybody could have a huge impact on a court case. We now have smartphones that track our every move, fitness trackers that can show when somebody is asleep, and even thousands of pieces of writing from social media and messaging apps. We can easily see somebody’s browsing history across multiple devices and in one famous case, a Fitbit Surge was used to prove a man innocent of rape after his accuser’s data was seen by the court. However, the power of data in isolation like this is just the beginning, there is considerable scope for big data to really pull together multiple data sources to paint a more complete picture. For instance, tracking the movement of somebody through their phone’s GPS signal, combined with calls made and data from any accomplice’s movements, could easily show a meeting at a specific time.

We have already seen the power that big data could have had with significant fraud cases, such as Enron’s collapse in December 2001, with companies like Brainspace showing the potential that machine learning could have within the forensic analysis of large scale fraud cases. Brainspace’s software essentially scans through millions of different pieces of data, such as emails and internal communication, then creates connections and identifies key themes. This then allows for key communications to be highlighted and particularly important people within any case to be identified.

With the right technologies, this could be used to identify the different people in a criminal enterprise, for instance through voice recognition software it would be relatively easy to identify two people on each call and see what they’re discussing. Over time, it would then be possible to stitch together hundreds of different calls to give a more holistic view of what’s happening, rather than relying on a small sample that is easier to analyze.

There is also the possibility of using data visualizations in a considerably more powerful way, something that is much easier today than only five years ago. Software like Qlik or Domo allows almost anybody with enough data to create compelling visualizations that are easy for the jury to understand, but most importantly simple to make. If you can show the data in an approachable way, it is many times more likely to have an impact on a judge or jury than any spreadsheet filled with numbers.

However, despite the clear opportunity that big data theoretically has for identifying crime and potentially prosecuting criminals, it is unlikely to become something frequently used in courts outside of large corporate cases. This is simply because people and companies don’t want it and have valid reasons not to. Chief amongst them is data privacy, as in order to get most of this information there needs to be constant monitoring and storage of practically everything somebody does alongside an ability to prevent people from having their data tracked. This is something that is unlikely to change anytime soon, too, with a 2014 Ipsos MORI survey showing that 91% saw the privacy of their email content as essential/important. The same survey also showed that 80% saw that privacy of location data from a mobile device was essential/important.

People are simply not ready to allow their privacy to be threatened so openly, and governments across the world have not allayed these fears, through multiple examples of data being lost or misused. It may well be that big data could help get bad people off the streets and good people back on them, but the unfortunate truth is that we are at a point in society today where people cannot trust organizations and governments to use their data properly. As public perception of fairness within law is at an all-time low, there is little chance of this ever taking place. 

Looking small

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