Minority Report 2.0, starring Twitter

JINOY JOSE P | Updated on April 23, 2014


A sequel to the 2002 science fiction flick from Spielberg?

Well, this is not a movie, yet. The idea, however, sounds similar. But, again, this doesn’t have pre-crime specialist Tom Cruise following cues from precogs and chasing future criminals.

Then what?

A new study has found that analysing tweets can help detect crimes, even before one has been committed. Researchers have found the millions of tweets flying across cyberspace every nanosecond include possible clues to criminal activities, committed or planned. Scholars at the University of Virginia actually showed that tweets could predict certain kinds of crimes.

Wow, that sounds like sci-fi.

It’s real. The researchers said the analysis of geo-tagged tweets can be useful in predicting 19 to 25 kinds of crimes, especially for offences such as stalking, theft and some forms of assault. They published their findings in the latest edition of the scientific journal Decision Support Systems.

But do people really tweet about such things?

Usually, we think, they don’t. And that’s why the results are surprising, according to lead researcher Matthew Gerber of Virginia University’s Predictive Technology Lab. Gerber says even tweets that have no direct link to crimes may contain clues about activities often associated with them. For instance, when someone tweets about his or her routine activities, if you club similar tweets and form a correlation, that will help predict certain forms of misconduct.

Please elaborate.

For the study, which was funded by the US Army, the Virginia researchers examined tweets from Chicago city which are tagged to certain neighbourhoods, and analysed them in relation to the city’s crime database. They were able to come up with really useful predictions about areas where certain crimes were likely to occur.

I have heard of pollsters using similar methods…

Yes. This is much the same way analyses of tweets are used to predict poll results, disease outbreaks and other key events. In sum, tweets and other forms of social media messaging, exchanged real-time, can help in what criminal science called predictive policing; this has its roots in business analytics.

Is this a new idea?

Not exactly. Several groups of researchers have been studying such trends for quite some time now. Police departments in the US and a few other advanced countries are now using Big Data tools to enhance their crime prediction abilities. Recently, Bryan Hurd, director of advanced analytics at Microsoft’s Digital Crimes Unit, said that big data analytics is increasingly playing a role in the fight against cyber crime. The Virginia researchers have taken it a step ahead and into the real world.

Researchers at Rutgers’ School of Criminal Justice has devised a technology that public safety officials are using to fight crime. They are offering it free of charge to law enforcement agencies.

Are these ready-to-deploy technologies?

To be fair, no. All these are at a fairly nascent stage. Companies such as IBM are supporting such endeavours. US forces are using similar techniques to spot and check threats in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Predictive policing, if right tools are available, is much easier than routine investigations and takes much less time than regular human-centred exercises. So researchers expect more takers for such tools.

Hmm, in short, I should be careful when I tweet...

Only if you harbour some malicious intent!

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Published on April 23, 2014
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