TCS Daily

Real Life, Reel Art

By James Pinkerton - June 13, 2002 12:00 AM

I have a hard time keeping that saying straight-is it "art imitates life," or "life imitates art"? The new Steven Spielberg movie, "Minority Report," opening June 21, argues for both statements, because its notion of "precrime" both reflects and anticipates trends in law enforcement.

You don't believe me? Well, then consider this exchange from the June 2 "Meet the Press." Host Tim Russert asked FBI Director Robert Mueller, "If someone had access to all those clues, could they have--could they have--prevented September 11?"

Mueller responded, "I still don't think it is all likely, but 'could,' yes." He went on to describe what would have been a better counter-measure. "It would be nice if we had the computers in the FBI that were tied into the CIA that you could go in and do 'flight schools,' and any report relating to flight schools that had been generated anyplace in the FBI field offices would spit out over the last 10 years." Yes, that would be nice. But Mueller was just getting warmed up in his hypothesizing: "What would be even better is if you had the artificial intelligence so that you don't even have to make the query, but to look at patterns like that in reports. And that's what we're seeking to do in the Bureau: to have that kind of predictive technological capacity."

Artificial intelligence. Somewhere, a cash register at director Spielberg's house just went "Ka-Ching!" But not for "AI," his not-so-good movie about a not-so-good robot that he released last summer. Rather, any public buzz about the terror-stymieing potential of AI-ish "predictive technological capacity" will boost ticket sales for "Minority Report," based on a 1956 short story by Philip K. Dick, the patron saint of sci-fi paranoia.

"Report" is set in 2054, when the American judicial system, aided by "precog"-for "precognitive"-mutants, is able to identify killers before they kill. The publicity campaign for the film includes a sneakily subversive website,, anticipating the unconstitutional but nonetheless utilitarian appeal of such a pre-emptive system. "Can you imagine a world without murder?" it asks, hammering home the slogan, "Precrime: It works."

Of course, in the story/movie, something goes horribly wrong with the precog mechanism-or does it?

But enough of science fiction. Let's get back to the non-fiction world where practical-minded men make hard-nosed decisions about combating terror. That would be the real world of 2002, where the FBI Director says he looks forward to using artificial intelligence so that agents "don't even have to make the query," but instead will be able to "look at patterns... in reports." Such automatic pattern-recognition, the nation's #1 G-Man prophesies, will help win the war on terror.

Of course, if the goal is to create a database that works like a super-duper Lexis-Nexis, such that typing in the words "flight school" will search all relevant resources, then such an information domain will have to be extended far beyond the FBI and the CIA -- to include, just for openers, the new Transportation Security Agency, the Federal Aviation Agency, the Secret Service, the Customs Service, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service. And if, as Mueller said, the real goal is for said database to be self-starting - so that it will scan, for example, flight schools without even being asked -- then we will have edged a bit closer to the "Minority Report" storyline. We might have no choice if we want to survive, but maybe it would be a good idea for everyone to see the movie, so that at least he or she can see a worst-case scenario.

Indeed, even before the future gets here, it's possible to see elements of preventive prognostication scattered across the law-enforcement landscape. For example, there's racial profiling. Official government policy is to oppose it, but there are some indicators that authorities, public and private, are using some sort of precautionary techniques to take the "crime" out of precrime.

And that's a good thing, because in a world where tools for instant communication and mass destruction abound, old protective mechanisms are inadequate. As President Bush said to cheering West Point graduates on June 1, "If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long."

Indeed, even as Congressional hearings get under way to study what went wrong before 9-11, the government is moving to make things right, post-9-11.

For example, the USA Patriot Act, signed into law by President Bush last October 26, greatly enhances federal power to scrutinize not only electronic communications of suspected terrorists, but also their financial transactions. At the signing ceremony, the President expressed the nation's hope that the new legislation would encourage federal homeland securitizers to operate "not on separate tracks, but to share vital information so necessary to disrupt a terrorist attack before it occurs."

It remains to be seen, of course, whether information balkanization is a thing of the past, but Uncle Sam's review of transactions, both financial and informational, are inevitably going to be guided by some sort of algorithm. Why? Because just as bank lenders, insurance companies, consumer marketers, and even Las Vegas casinos have discovered that profitable patterns can be discerned out of their databases, so law enforcers need statistical measures to help them target criminality. Could that lead to a back-door type of profiling? Let's hope so, because the stakes are so high. Let's hope that even as the Bushmen publicly adhere to the orthodoxies of political correctness - such that airport security guards continue to frisk old ladies with the enthusiasm they never showed for any of the 9-11 hijackers -- the imperative of stopping another mass murder has inspired them to come up with some sort of common-sense based triggering technique. And the Justice Department's June 5 announcement that it would begin fingerprinting men from selected Muslim countries was yet another sign that the government is looking for ways to reap the benefits of racial profiling without racial profiling.

Indeed, some interesting signs - perhaps encouraging, perhaps discouraging, perhaps both and perhaps also eerie -- have emerged. On May 24 the United States Attorney's office in San Diego indicted an online Egyptian-American investment adviser, Amr Ibrahim Elgindy, charging him with attempting to short-sell $300,000 worth of stock on the afternoon of September 10. In bringing the indictment, an assistant United States attorney, Kenneth Breen, told the presiding judge, "Perhaps Mr. Elgindy had preknowledge of Sept. 11, and rather than report it he attempted to profit from it."

Now what does that mean, "preknowledge"? Was it a throwaway remark by the federal prosecutor who's also a Philip K. Dick fan? Or did it speak to the government postknowledge of Elgindy's preknowledge? Or maybe the government had preknowledge of Elgindy's preknowledge? These questions may seem more the province of a science-fiction movie than a non-fiction courtroom, but since Elgindy has already accused the government of targeting him because he is a Muslim who was born in Egypt, it's likely that the forthcoming trial will provide at least a glimpse into whatever investigative methods the feds have developed.

But while it might be cool to think that government techies have figured out better ways to spot complicated crimes, and thus might be able to thwart even worse terrorism, another element of the San Diego case is not so hot at all. Indicted alongside Elgindy were an FBI agent and a former FBI agent, accused of passing along confidential government secrets to the broker, which he then supposedly used to manipulate stock prices.

And thus to an old question, first asked by Plato's critics 2500 years ago: "Who will guard the guardians?" But if that's a good query, so is Dick's, as expressed 46 years ago: "If we empower some to issue prophecy, will they also be empowered to administer punishment?"

In 2002, questions about precrime are best left to the movies. But if present technotrends continue, well before 2054, real life will have imitated reel art, and we'll be forced -- in the era of loose nukes, Sarin gas, smallpox, and things that go boom in night -- to ponder seriously the tradeoff between liberty and security. A buffed-up Uncle Sam might be able to get us through the war against Al-Qaeda at the turn of the century, but Big Brother could inherit those muscles in the decades to come. That's a scary prospect, but we can ease into it by seeing a scary movie.



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