L’Espresso: Special Agent Key Crime
He was walking quietly along Viale Monte Rosa in Milan when ten plainclothes policemen swooped in on him. Amedeo Bruno, 35, had a toy gun and was at first amazed. Then he admitted that he was about to carry out a robbery, that very day, the 29th of September, at precisely that time, 12PM. Moustapha Sekouri, a Moroccan aged 23, managed to rob a number of pharmacies, each in under two minutes, and he always got away with it. On Wednesday, August 27th, the policemen were waiting for him near the municipal pharmacy in via Morgantini. As soon as he took 2,450 euros from the cash register, he was handcuffed by the waiting officers. These might seem like scenes from the movie “Minority Report”, in which criminals are arrested before they commit a crime, but they are real news stories. Because what led to the arrests of the two robbers was a computer program capable of predicting who, where and when a future crime will be committed.
This electronic super-cop, patented under the name Key Crime, was developed through eight years of work in a cramped, windowless room on the fifth floor of the Milan Police Headquarters. The Assistant Chief, Mario Venturi of the General Prevention Office, was able to develop a system capable of analyzing a prodigious number of data that the electronic brain uses to predict an event. Simply by pressing the enter key on your computer keyboard. For two years, the fruits of those labors, the hours spent in front of the monitor, have been reaped by the police station. The manager of the UPG, Ivo Morelli, is so enthusiastic about the project that he wants to present it to the Ministry of the Interior in the hope that it can be used in all of Italy’s police stations. Because Key Crime, which for now is applied to serial criminals, has potential that open up new scenarios, even disturbing ones, in investigative techniques. Once the geographic profiling has been performed, that is, the identification of an area where the same crimes are committed, the behavioral profile of the robber is added, collecting information that not even the subject themself is aware of. Starting from the most obvious data, such as the physical description, clothing or escape route, up to 20,000 data points per event are then entered. At the police station they do not like to talk about it. They are afraid of revealing their “trick” and thus tipping their hand to the criminals, but they let slip that the smallest details are also useful, up to the smell of the bandit. Of fundamental importance, in addition to witness testimony, are the images from the surveillance cameras. “With three seconds of video we are already able to insert 60 data points in the database, and we can be certain that some of those, in the series of crimes will be repeated. Because everyone tends to repeat the mechanisms that led to criminal action”, explains an investigator.
Each crime becomes an alphanumeric code that contains all the information about the perpetrator. Every time that code is repeated, you will have the near-mathematical certainty that it is a serial robber. And at that point most of the work is done. Key Crime tells the cops where and when he will strike again. With a margin of error that does not depend so much on free will as on chance events and on the lack of a statistical basis to set the predictions.
Even in the absence of sufficient data to predict crimes, Key Crime still makes it possible to track all the crimes committed by the same perpetrator, as if they have a bar code that is always identifiable. At the police headquarters, they maintain that the results of the software are greater than their expectations, with 136 robberies solved in 2008, 62 percent of the total, compared to 3 percent in 2005. All thanks to software? Or did the greater commitment before and after the elections where security was a key issue influence the numbers as well? Of course, the suggestion of being able to handcuff the criminals before they strike, like the super-police dreamed of by Philip K. Dick and brought to the screen by Tom Cruise, is tempting to any police officer. But we’re not nearly there yet – that kind of result is still just a mirage. And the criminal code does not punish virtual crimes: the man in Via Monte Rossa will have to answer for past robberies, not future ones.