Minority Report is a science fiction movie which posits the moral dilemma: should people be punished for crimes they have yet to commit? In today’s increasingly tech-reliant world, this idea is very easily realised. But would making this concept of crime prevention a reality be one step forward for mankind, or two steps back?
In 2002, Steven Spielberg’s science fiction movie, “Minority Report” showcased the potential of technology in combating crime. Tom Cruise’s character is charged with leading a team of enforcement officers to purported “crime scenes” based on foresight received from machines. In this movie, “criminals” are arrested and imprisoned before any crimes actually take place.
This idea has always fascinated me as it solves the one problem that mankind has always grappled with— prevention of crime.
A quote from one scene in the Minority Report best illustrated the utopia of a crime-free society:
“We get them first, before they can commit an act of violence. So the commission of the crime itself is absolute metaphysics. We claim they’re culpable. They, on the other hand, eternally claim they’re innocent. And, in a sense, they are innocent. In our society we have no major crimes, but we do have a detention camp full of would-be criminals.”
In the past, the conventional method to deter crime was to identify an offence, create a law out of it and punish the individual that violated that law. The intention of punishment was always clear: to discourage others from committing the same. The validity of this approach to crime prevention aside, the equation was that harsher penalties wielded greater deterrents on potential offenders.
Recently, the Economist (through its Facebook video post) reported that facial recognition technology has the capability of identifying criminals, even potential ones. The Economist reports that such technology is ready to be deployed to mass public monitoring.
The use of facial recognition to identify subjects is not something new. Automated Facial Recognition Technology (AFRT) is a facial profiling technique that has been commonly used by the criminal justice systems of many jurisdictions since the 19th century. When AFRT technology was incorporated into conventional CCTVs, it became a “Smart CCTV” with improved capability to, among others, identify suspected shoplifters.
All this therefore demonstrates the potential of Minority Report becoming a reality.
This pre-emptive approach to criminal justice struck me and led me to recall the saying, “it is better that ten guilty persons escape, than that one innocent suffer” (Blackstone, 1769).
The question I asked myself next was this: should the law be able to perceive guilt based on pre-emptive technology alone?
The academia finds that pre-emptive intervention is fundamental to preventing acts of terrorism. It would be all too counter-productive to begin terrorist investigations only after the occurrence of actual tragic incidents.
Running on this logic, it remains unclear whether Minority Report-type enforcement should be deployed to crimes of culpable homicide. If so, to what extent should the offender be punished? How and when should our law enforcement draw the line between an attempt and a murder?
Let’s do a thought experiment based on the Malaysian Penal Code—Malaysia’s primary source of law for all criminal offences.
In this thought experiment, the scenario is that Alpha intends to kill Zorro with poison.
While Alpha was purchasing poison from the pharmacist, a CCTV picks up on his suspicious behaviour. A series of events then occurs. As soon as the CCTV identifies the, “crime”, this intelligence is fed to the police. The police then rush to the scene, catching Alpha red-handed with a packet of arsenic in his hand. Upon the police’s arrival, Alpha yells, “IT’S FOR THE PEST!”
Question: Should we punish Alpha in this scenario?
Although Alpha may have had initial thoughts of murdering Zorro with arsenic, he could have changed his mind later on.
Further assume that when Alpha bought the arsenic, the police tailed him.
In this extended scenario, Alpha arrives home, mixes the poison into a sandwich, passed the sandwich to Zorro, and at the exact moment before Zorro puts the sandwich into his mouth, the SWAT team breaks through the front door and yells, “FREEZE! YOU ARE UNDER ARREST!”
According to Malaysian law, Alpha is guilty of an attempt to murder in the second scenario. Of course, this thought experiment is a construct. In reality, it could be too costly to carry out this level of enforcement, but it would be perfect for the big screen.
Lastly, as a third scenario: let’s assume that traffic caused SWAT to arrive 3 minutes late (a huge possibility during KL rush hour) — Zorro would have died and Alpha would have left. On the other hand, assuming Alpha still had the intention of murdering Zorro but was detained at a point before he mixes the poison – Alpha would be innocent and the police would be under fire for abuse of power.
In conclusion, it is difficult for our enforcement agencies to pinpoint the right moment to act on crime. Enforcement can only either be too early or too late.
Note: Photo above is by Danir Yangirov on Unsplash. For illustration purposes only
KJ is interested in reading and writing articles related to law and technology. Ironically however, he finds himself missing the days of reading hardcopy books with nothing but an old-school radio by his side.