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In 2016 two researchers at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Xiaolin Wu and Xi Zhang, developed an AI based on photographic facial recognition.

Their claim is that with their algorithm they can teach a machine to read images of human faces and determine whether the depicted person has a criminal character.

Their research demonstrates that their AI with 89.5% accuracy can determine whether a person is a criminal or has a criminal character.



The Shanghai study proposes that a person – with tangible mathematical certainty (89.5%) – can be identified as a criminal, even before he or she is convicted of a criminal offense. It opens up the possibility of a worrying dimension in the implementation of ‘crime prevention’ and policing. It is suddenly possible to predict human behaviour from digital facial recognition. Predictions make it possible to introduce the concept of preventative ‘behavioural hygiene’.

Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909)

Based on the principles of phrenology, the “Father of Criminology”, Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909), claimed that criminal behaviour was hereditary and innate. ‘The Born Criminal’ could be identified through studies and measurements of physical traits and Lombroso carried out a number of anthropometric studies focusing on measuring human skulls. Lombroso’s anthropometric profiling of criminals underpins the pseudoscientific claim that it is possible, based on human physics, to identify persons with criminal inclinations. Lombroso’s allegations inspired the Eugenics movement, theories of racial hygiene and behavioural genetic practices such as forced sterilization.

Phrenology –

Despite the discriminatory and racist starting point, the study from Shanghai signals a resurrection of phrenology, criminological anthropometry and behavioural genetics in a digital disguise. The Shanghai study revives cremated physiognomic and phrenological claims and restores the theoretical anthropometric genome in a new disguise: Cyberphrenology.


The politicization, securitization, and commercialization of data is difficult to understand or theorize. We have not fully mapped the social consequences of digitization. Technological developments occur too fast. The technology is non-transparent. Practice is veiled in secrecy and anonymity. Data creates invasive profit accumulation through ‘surveillance capitalism’. Psychosocial and behavioural psychological influences are insidious and difficult to detect over time. Digitization creates cognitive bias and shifts the individual’s judgement in making rational choices. Users are the victims of cunning rhetorical misinformation and deliberate political or cultural deception.

Photo by Thomas Windisch on

Cyberphrenology is the common denominator for phrenology and criminological anthropometry in a digital disguise. From a criminological historical conceptual perspective, the concept of ‘cyberphrenology’ is the result of a hermeneutic philosophical-archaeological excavation. The method starts in phrenology, but reveals a chronological conceptual debt that spans criminological anthropometry, racial hygiene, behavioural genetics, biometrics to socio-technology, where cyberphrenology is the latest off-spring. All these concepts contain serious latent warnings, if they are put into practice.

Cyberphrenology reflects a fundamental approach to datafication of human activity harvested from online social configurations in order to predict and influence future behaviour.

Cyberphrenology recognizes the fundamental anthropometric quantitative premise of phrenology. Cyberphrenology digitizes the claim that it is possible to measure, record and explain a person’s character and personal characteristics based on an automated algorithmic calculation of biometrics and person-related data that shapes the individual’s digital fingerprint.

Cyberphrenology accepts this historical conceptual heritage and argues that it is possible to determine a person’s mental disposition, temperament, social status, economy, sexuality, political or religious standpoint from an automated digital calculation of Big data, Metadata and individual digital behavioural patterns on social media.

Chinese police with the new advanced sunglasses that have built-in facial recognition.
Foto: – / Ritzau Scanpix

The emergence of cyberphrenology can be attributed to the global spread of the internet and the birth of an era of Big Data, which considers data as objective, pure, innocent, and conceived in a divine intervention where data and facts are converted into ultimate universal truths.

Numbers are the basic building blocks of data and digital technology. Numbers don’t lie. They can’t. Lying is a human behaviour. On the other hand, numbers do not always tell the whole truth. Yet many decisions are based on blind faith in data and digital technology.

Cyberphrenology is the fundamental element of concealed datafication processes that create stereotypes, or cognitive schemes, where simplified and uncompromising digital representations are transferred to the physical reality in the form of indisputable facts.


Any digital human-computer interaction produces data. Over time, more and more data is generated about the individual, but personal data is controlled by others. In the digital domain, individuals are not in control of their own digital data. In totalitarian regimes, the state basically takes centralized ownership of all data. In liberal democracies, data is a commodity. The product is produced and harvested by the technology everyone is surrounded by. The product is traded, mostly to 3rd parties, by those who own the technology.

Digital behaviour of individuals is an inexhaustible source of free raw material that provides a new type of industrial manufacturing process, where success is defined by industry’s ability to predict human behaviour in the future.

Shosana Zuboff, 2016

Identity, privacy and digital behaviour merely become crops in digital farming – a free raw material. Cyberphrenology is the fundamental paradigm of a new type of data analysis that preys on digital behaviour of users, who are largely kept ignorant or unaware of its processes and social consequences.

Based on the cyberphrenological acceptance that digital technology always produces objective indisputable facts, a belief arises that the harvesting and processing of data as a free raw material can predict future behavioural patterns of individuals and consumers.

Photo by Pixabay on

Cyberphrenological data analysis can identify effective psychosocial or behavioural psychological stimuli that lead to predictions, which can be translated into political influences or profits.

The cyberphrenological paradigm of data analysis is basically a formidable tool for modifying human behaviour. It is used in both totalitarian regimes and in liberal democracies.


The cyberphrenological paradigm allows for a pragmatic implementation of prejudice or racist arguments to initiate systematic modification or suppression of religious or political opinions, abnormal behaviours, and segregation of unwanted individuals – or entire communities.

Profiling individuals on the basis of their digital fingerprints is the fundamental element of the cyberphenological method. Through surveillance, collection and analysis, the user’s behaviour is recorded. Good and bad behaviour can be judged with the intention of rewarding the good or punishing the bad. Profiling generates a number of cognitive bias, allowing a population to be divided into different categories and implementing ranking systems. In practice, this process forms the basis for various forms of social exclusion of individuals, groups or specific behavioural patterns.

Photo by PhotoMIX Ltd. on

The ultimate goal of the cyberphrenological paradigm is to introduce digital behavioural hygiene through modification of behaviour using tools ranging from behavioural design, manipulation, isolation over exclusion to ‘elimination’. In totalitarian regimes, the classical tools for modifying behaviour are often very direct and hard-handed. In liberal democracies, however, the tools are often much more difficult to distinguish.

Cyberphrenology translates human behaviour into numbers. Numbers are just numbers. In a democracy, only one number matters. Majority. But if a majority is formed by bots, do their opinion count?

Cyberphrenological profiling is used in various forms of behavioural design. The result is a form of ‘tactical behavioural hygiene’ or ‘Weapons of Mass Persuasion’ that can affect many, but also has a great potential for targeted precision towards specific groups or individuals. Behavioural modification can be difficult to detect and even harder to deter. The paradox is that similar methods and instrumentation are used by both agents of the state, corporate actors and criminals.

Applied in a setting of criminological profiling, the cyberphrenological paradigm opens up opportunities for identifying individuals who, on the basis of an analysis of data on social background, family relationships, geographical upbringing, interests, habits and values, could be expected to perform crime in the future. We have come full circle. The idea of ‘The born criminal’ is revived in a digital disguise.

There’s a great chance that the concept of behavioural hygiene and modification will shape your life in the future. Completely without you noticing it. Whatever you say or do can be used against you.

The question is: What will you do about it?


Cybercriminology – Introduction



Deindividuation in Cybergaps


Wu, X. and Zhang, X. (2016) Automated Inference on Criminality using Face Images. Shanghai: Shanghai Jiao Tong University

Danish Research Leads Facial Analysis Research, Technical University of Denmark

Olivia Solon (2019) Facial recognition’s ‘dirty little secret’: Millions of online photos scraped without consent, NBC News, 12 March 2019

Zuboff, S. (2016) The Secrets of Surveillance Capitalism, Frankfurter Algemeine,


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