Cinema and the Technology of Predictive Policing

Films are enjoyable because they make life dramatically interesting. Filmmakers identify a conflict, something we struggle with as individuals or as a society and make it something that ignites our interest.
The topic of big data and policing does that for us. For example, there are three films that inspire our imaginations in this way: Enemy of the State, Minority Report, and, most recently, Anon. Each film identifies a conflict to drive the narrative while placing law enforcement and big data policing at the center of the action.

Enemy of the State (1998)

“The only privacy that’s left is inside of your head.”

Enemy of the State (1998), directed by Tony Scott, is a spy-thriller that identifies a conflict right away: privacy and public safety. The opening scene takes place at the fictitious Occuquan Park, Maryland, at 0645 hours. NSA Security Advisor, Thomas Brian Reynolds (Jon Voight) presses Congressman Phillip Hammersley (Jason Robards) to support a Telecommunications, Security, and Privacy Act. The congressman refuses to comply. One of the NSA agents stabs him in the neck with a needle, knocks him inside his car, scatters pills around, and pushes the car into a lake.
To prevent their clandestine operation from being discovered, the NSA intercepts a phone call by Daniel Zavitz, a nature photographer, who admits to capturing a video recording of the Hammersley murder through a motion-activated camera. The agents track down Zavitz at his apartment and chase him through the streets of Washington, DC. He dies in a traffic accident, but not before running into an old friend, Robert Clayton Dean (Will Smith), a labor law attorney. Zavitz placed the videotape inside Dean’s shopping bag, making Dean the NSA’s primary target.

The computational machinery that the NSA uses to track Dean’s whereabouts is fascinating to watch because it hits at the very heart of the privacy issue. The NSA agents put a trace on Dean’s cell phone, pager, shoes, watch, pants, and pen, and use satellite imagery to pinpoint his locations. Dean’s credit cards are canceled. He is fired from his job. His wife Carla (Regina King) kicks him out of the house, and his friend, Rachel Banks (Lisa Bonet) is murdered. Dean’s life appears doomed until he meets his informant in an ongoing mob case, Brill (Gene Hackman). Brill (aka Edward Lyle) is a former NSA agent who reluctantly partners up with Dean, using his vast knowledge of NSA technologies to circumvent their attack and take down the corrupt agents.
The film concludes by circling back to the central issue that was raised at the outset: privacy. Back at Dean’s home in Georgetown, a televised newscast of the Larry King show addresses the issue of privacy, which prompts Dean’s wife Carla to question:

“Who is going to monitor the monitors of the monitors?”

Minority Report (2002)

“Algorithms and big data models simply take inputs,
crunch them up, to create outputs. So, if your inputs are
biased, your outputs are going to be biased.”
– Andrew Ferguson, How Cops Are Using Algorithms to Predict Crimes, Wired, YouTube

Minority Report (2002), directed by Stephen Spielberg, is a science fiction film that is set in Washington, DC and Northern Virginia in the year 2054. The topic that becomes a source of tension throughout the film is predictive policing. The movie stars Tom Cruise, as John Anderton, Chief of Precrime, who uses a translucent touchscreen to assemble an amalgamation of data to pinpoint the location of a crime. Three psychics or Precogs serve as the foundation of the system. They use their collective powers to project visions of a crime before it happens. Precrime has total faith in the system’s accuracy, assuring every American of its “utter infallibility.” Captain Anderson upholds the system’s integrity, but is challenged by Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell), an investigator who is sent to examine the program’s effectiveness:
John Anderton:
“What are you looking for?”
Danny Witwer:
John Anderton:
“There hasn’t been a murder in six years. There is nothing wrong with the system, it is perfect.”
Danny Witwer:
“Perfect, I agree. But if there’s a flaw’ it’s human. It always is.”

A critical juncture in the film occurs when Captain Anderton discovers the existence of a Minority Report. The report includes inconsistencies noted in the Precogs pre-visions, raising doubts about the system’s accuracy.
Digging deeper, Anderton discovers that Abigail, a Precog, is Precrime’s most important asset. To maintain Precrime’s operations, the Director, Lamar Burgess (Max von Sydow) kills Abigail’s mother, Ann Lively, to maintain possession of the daughter and ensure the system’s longevity. To avoid being noticed, Burgess staged two versions of the murder, portraying the real murder as an alternate version, an “echo,” which he knew the system would reject.
The film concludes with an ironic ending: Precrime turns to murder to ensure its operation, the very thing the system claims to eliminate.

Anon (2018)

“What is the world coming to when our murderers don’t tell us who they are?”

Anon directed by Andrew Niccol, is a futuristic sci-fi, techno-film that identifies anonymity as the central challenge for law enforcement. Building on themes introduced in Minority Report, crime prevention depends on a pervasive system of surveillance that makes “anonymity the enemy.”
In this high tech futuristic society, computational data is accessed and shared through the mind’s eye of every citizen, which connects them to a cyber-kinetic world. The average person can exchange information (photos, memories, financial transactions), but law enforcement has special access to proxies and portals that allow them to see the mind’s eye of every citizen.

In the film, detective Sal Frieland (Clive Owen) is the main protagonist who is assigned to lead an investigation into a series of murders. The cases are difficult to solve because the suspect does not leave a digital footprint.
The police department suspects a female as the murderer, referred to as “The Girl” (Amanda Seyfried). Law enforcement cannot detect her identity or her whereabouts because she has developed a sophisticated algorithm that erases her identity and the memory of those she meets. She is also capable of hacking the mind’s eye of others, forcing them to see what she sees.
Frieland goes undercover as a wealthy stockbroker and hires “The Girl” to erase his memory of a Call Girl (Alyson Bath) – an encounter he purposely arranges to discover her methods. Frieland, who is accustomed to having data readily available, is piqued by her need to remain anonymous. Her response is ironic:

“You invade my privacy, it’s nothing. I try to get it back, it’s a crime.”

The truth is later revealed that Cyrus Frear (Mark O’Brien), is the murderer, a hacker who managed to infiltrate the police department. Frear set up an anonymous proxy server that shielded “The Girl” from police surveillance, while privately tracking her movements to serve his own nefarious ends.
The film ends at an impasse. Surveillance and anonymity, the two things that ensure public safety and individual privacy, are deemed irreconcilable.


All three films identify conflicts in a society that dramatize our need for public safety and privacy. They also raise questions about the objectivity of policing technologies.

  • Are policing technologies objective about the data they gather?
  • Can they be tainted by human flaws and motivations?

How this issue impacts us today is something we will discuss in detail at an upcoming event at the Museum titled Predictive Policing: Forecasting Crime with Big Data