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Can We Prevent Murders by Analyzing a User’s Online Activity?

Google might be the most powerful precog there is.

Photo by Markus Spisk from Unsplash
  • How to get rid of someone annoying”
  • Morphine for children”
  • Fatal digoxin doses”
  • When someone pisses you off, is it worth killing them?”
  • Tips with killing with a baseball bat”

These are all Google searches from murderers before killing their victims.

They did these searches days or hours before making their move and no one did anything to prevent it. And it’s not like no one saw it coming. Red flags were laying in the open.

Specifically, in their search history.

It’s not like the search history of a killer hasn’t been admitted in court before as evidence, so why not dispose of that information to target possible and despicable outcomes before they happen?

Google’s power

Google handles 5.6 billion searches per day across the world. That means that every day, Google is 5.6 billion points smarter than the day before. It’s devouring knowledge about us at staggering rates.

It gets better at our search intent and finding the best match for our inquiries, so we tend to come back over and over again. As loyal customers, Google can track and learn from us to be even better next time we search on it.

Think about the following. If people return to Google and use it constantly, there’s a good chance that Google can predict our next move based on our search pattern. It can either infer it from our past preferences or extrapolate a behavioral pattern from general trends (e.g. “people who bought this item also bought…”).

It might arrive at our conclusion even before we do!

So wouldn’t it have a pretty good guess when potential killers use it for their violent crimes?

A murder case that could’ve been prevented with search engine data

On March 24th of 2012, the following sequence happened.

  • At 3:09 am Nicole Okrzezik texted a friend saying the girl (Juliana) is passed out in her apartment.
  • At 3:36 she sends a text to another friend asking if he knew where to get crack [suspicious but not yet a red flag alert].
  • 3:38 she googles (on her phone) “chemicals to pass out a person” [1st red flag].
  • 3:39 searches on “making people faint” [2nd flag].
  • 3:40 searches on google “ways to kill a person in their sleep” [3rd red flag, anyone getting this on the other side?]
  • 3:41 opens an entry on forum with “could you kill someone in their sleep and no one would think it was you” [4th red flag, no one seeing this Google?]
  • 3:42 opens a blog post “Ways to Kill Someone With Your Bare Hands” [5th red flag, someone please do something!]
  • 3:43 searches on google “how to suffocate someone” [6th red flag, this is no joke anymore]
  • 3:44 searches on google “how to poison someone” [7th red flag, send someone to that address right now!]
  • 3:44 opens a blog post titled “Thirteen ways to poison someone” [8th red flag, now!]

After that no other searches take place and Okrzezik’s phone has no other activity for the rest of that night.

Police say the killing happened minutes later.

You see there are at least 8 red flags in this sequence of events. If you felt anxious while reading it as I did writing it, you might’ve had the urge to do something about it.

Was there anything that could’ve been done to avoid this horrendous murder, like alerting the police based on the individual’s search pattern?

If they had been alerted that there was something suspicious going on, they could’ve at least made an inquiry at the apartment.

Could this have dissuaded the killer from committing the crime? Maybe it would, maybe not. But at least something would’ve been done.

A pre-crime police unit?

The idea is not that far-fetched when you see that killers are googling incriminating stuff before making their kill.

This suggestion can be traced back to Dick’s short story Minority Report. It was then converted into a movie, starring a young Tom Cruise, but the original plot talked about police using mutant psychics (called precogs) to predict murders before they happen.

These mutants project their visions on large screens [google search?] showing both the place and people involved in the crime [IP address?] that is going to happen soon enough. With this information at hand, the police can easily act and apprehend the suspects before they do anything they’ll regret for the rest of their lives.

I’m not sure what happens with these people upon arrest since they haven’t really committed a crime, but the end goal is to prevent something that could’ve ended badly.

If it would be up to me, I would send them to psyche evaluations and rehabilitation centers to help them deal with their urges. They’re suffering and in need of help. A whole procedure should be put in place, of course, but we can develop it over time.

Now, a pre-crime police unit has already been underway in some US states. It has been called “predictive policing” and what they do is track down places and timeframes in which a crime might occur. Police use computer algorithms that examine large amounts of crime data to predict where and when they will most likely take place. I know it’s not even close to a Minority Report scenario, but it’s something.

Think of the data from web searches. These contain information on specific individuals. People that confess to their Internet God their deepest and darkest thoughts (and plans). With the device’s IP address, crimes like Okrzesik’s could’ve been prevented.

Of course, there are privacy issues

I know what you’re going to say.

This is some serious Big Brother control on its citizens.

And there are laws and procedures preventing the government to take that kind of action on its people. There are warrants to be made and the police can’t just monitor anybody’s phone or computer. Police can’t even require Google to share its data with them without a compelling reason. Even in that case, Google doesn’t need to cooperate.

However, Web searches aren’t protected from being disclosed voluntarily to authorities, unlike phone conversations. When you inquire into Google’s search bar, you’re communicating with Google and they can share that information with anyone they want, including the police. But that’s just in theory.

They can always choose not to.

Plus there’s no law requiring them to share search information with the government…yet.

Although there’s been some development in that field with the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, which could give immunity to firms sharing search information when there’s suspicion of a cyber threat, there’s still a long way to go.

The bill hasn’t passed in the Senate, so it’s still early to say what will happen with the free flow of information between the government and major tech companies.


Photo by Possessed Photography from Unsplash

According to Statcounter, Google’s search engine accounts for 92% of the market share in its category. Billions of people pour their deepest and darkest thoughts into the search bar, and some of these are quite disturbing.

Many of these horrific searches end up without serious consequences, but what about those that actually lead to a murder?

Is there something that can be done to prevent those killings?

Considering that Google not only gathers most of the inquiries online, it also learns about our intent and behavior at an astonishing rate. With all that data pouring in, Google can act as an excellent prediction tool that could be used for good, especially when killers reveal their intentions online.

Anti-crime police units already exist but they’re still in its infancy. What could become of them if Google becomes their ally? Of course, this should be highly regulated and used only in specific instances. Otherwise, hell on earth might be unleashed.

The worst thing is to know that something could’ve been done but people chose not to. It’s not a matter of if but when are we going to start preventing murders from happening.

Only time will tell.

By Pavle Marinkovic on .

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