Again, a conversation with Andrew Ducker has prompted me to think out loud. In the World of Tomorrow, what happens to all the criminals? The petty criminals, that is.
Charles Stross’ blog a few weeks ago had a discussion about the impact of ubiquitous monitoring devices. Small computers, powered by ambient heat, light and the wi-fi radio pulses being aimed at them which cost euro-cents each to produce. Some have small cameras in them. Some a small meterological kit. Some a chemical sniffer package. They are all linked. Nothing that happens goes unseen.
They are small enough and cheap enough to fit into any physical object as large as a wallet and worth £10. You’re £100 sneakers will have GPS, not to stop people nicking them, but to analysis your jogging for health and fitness purposes. All of your black, brown, silver and white goods come with anti-theft / anti-left my lap top on the train again devices, as standard. Never mind your car having GPs tracking, the wheels have their monitoring system.
So what happens to burglars, sneak thieves, pick pockets. Bike thieves and small drug users and petty drug dealers? Where do they go.
To illustrate, I have a few examples of the experience of the petty criminal of the future.
You break into a house. It’s a nice, ground floor, main door flat in a prosperous middle class suburb of Edinburgh. The sort of flat the author owns. It’s mid-afternoon. The owners are out at work. There must be a couple of grands worth of kit in there. Plenty to chose from.
Watching you from thew walls are a dozen monitors. A couple take a picture of your face. This is rendered into 3D (by some software my brother-in-law has developed) and compared to a list of “known and loved” faces. You’re not known and you’re not loved. The lights come on. The stereo that you are trying to steal comes on. Loud. Painfully loud. After a few minutes of disorientatingly loud noise the stereo informs you that the police have been informed about the break in.(1) Desperate to salvage something from your burglary you tuck the stereo under your arm and make for the back door. It’s running on battery power and still stream abuse abuse at you as you make your escape. You pull the batteries out of the back of the stereo.
Evading the police is easy. They arrive in their car and you’re already off down the alleyway. The cops are too slow, too stupid. Half an hour later, whilst you are sitting over a pint in the pub where you hope to fence the stolen stereo the police turn up and nick you. For good measure they nick the barman too for aiding and abetting but generally to remind landlords not to harbour petty criminals and fences in their pubs if they want to hold onto their license.
And this isn’t just one house. It’s every house that can afford £100 for kit and £10 a year for the subscription service.
You turn to bike theft. There’s a nice touring bike sitting out in the open. Worth a couple of k new. You cut through the lock in a minute and half and ride off. The perfect crime, swag and getaway vehicle in one.
250 yards away the owner of the bike’s phone rings. It’s the bike calling her. Or rather, it’s the GPS tracker in the bike calling her, to tell her bike is moving and would she like to activate Trac and Trace for 50 pence. She would. Before you’ve gotten a mile the police have pulled you over. By the time the owner of the bike has finished her second Elston the bike is back in her possession.
And it’s not just expensive bikes. The kit costs a couple of quid and comes as standard with all new bikes.
So, you turn to picking pockets. Not only lucrative but a real artisanal criminal activity. Not so much a job as a way of life. Now, you’re not dumb. You’re a criminal learning machine. You know that that wallet is going to have a GPS tracker. So you know you don’t have long to lift the wallet and buy something. You carefully scope the PIN number at the bank machine before you dip and dab the wallet. Slipping the card into the ATM you know you’re in for a pay day.
“Account Frozen. Please Try Again Later.”
Detecting that wallet is more than 100 metres from the owner by comparing the GPS tracker in his wallet with the GPS tracker in his phone, shoes, and leather jacket the wallet has decide it’s been stolen and automatically freezes all of the accounts for cards in the wallet. That technology cost £5 and came free with your Royalties Gold Account. Which is a bit of redundancy, because the camera at the ATM didn’t recognise you and was going to ask for additional security information whilst it called the police.
But this time, the police don’t know where you are. You’ve ditched the wallet, there’s no GPS tracker on you. You’re safe. Except that the photo the ATM took of you and rendered into 3D is now on the local police net’s Person of Interest list and the cameras that are everywhere, monitoring traffic, monitoring how crowded the streets are, monitoring the number of squirrels in the park, providing real time street views for Google Maps, all of these cameras are now looking for you.
And the police pick you up for the third time. (2) This time they are cross because they actually had to look for you a bit this time. The hand cuffs are put on robustly.
You’ve learned your lessson. It’s time to get a proper job. Drug dealing. You make a connection. You become a retailer of low end drugs. Tucking the weekends supplies into your jacket you walk outside into the bright sunlight street. It’s going to be a good day. Nothing can go wrong. A monitor finds the air you are walking in interesting. Part of the city’s polution monitoring network has spotted a chemical on its Watch For List. Another monitor joins in. In a few minutes the polution network realises that there is a source of illegal drugs moving along the street. It notifies the police net. That switches on the cameras and the cameras and the sniffers follow you for a bit whilst they work out who is carrying the drugs. The fact that you’re wearing a balaclava doesn’t help. The police net is tracking you using your gait. Then they direct the local bobby to pick you up on a probable cause stop and search warrant.
And you’re in the back of a cop car again.(3)
And a few days later the police raid the warehouse based on your, unreliable testimony, and the evidence of multiple drug scent trails leading back to it. Everyone involved goes down for 3-5. (4)
Looking into the future it’s difficult to see a space where it is economically viable for many types of petty criminal to make a living. If every house you break into and every wallet you nick calls the cops and they know where you are, petty crime becomes very risky and the potential reward falls. Who’s going to buy a bike with a GPS tracker and an agrieved owner? How much money can you steal from a frozen bank account? If you have the skills to circumvent the systems put in place to stop you nicking stuff you probably have the skills to get a decent job or become a criminal mastermind and hang out with Raffles and Catherine Zeta Jones . So, unless you are Slippery Jim DiGriz a life of (petty) crime doesn’t strike me as rewarding.
(1) Hard core systems won’t even warn you. The first you’ll know about it will be when the cops turn up. Or the newspapers, who will have hacked the security network looking for stories.
(2) In some jurisdictions you are now facing a Three Stikes and You’re Out life sentence. In other jurisdictions I’m not sure what they cut off for a third offense. They probably just blind you or something.
(3) or maybe not, maybe it’s worth more to see where you are going and arrest a few of the punters too. After all, if you can’t legalise dope or pills and tax them the next best thing is to fine everyone who uses it £100 an arrest.
(4) and you lose your jacket under the Proceeds of Crime Act.