Part of the popularity of crime fiction is the reader is invited to follow the clues to identify the crime, criminal and the cat and mouse chase between the criminal and authorities. There are many crime novels where the perpetrator of the crime is clear from the start. In other books, the attraction is solving the mystery of who committed the crime.
The premise of crime fiction has changed little over time—a crime creates a sense of mystery and tension because there are gaps, flaws, and deficiencies in our information. We may be the last to live in an age where unreliability of information is a major wedge issue for criminals. The essence of this incompleteness of information is the reason that criminals have used to their advantage to avoid detection and to game the criminal justice system.
The way we think about crime hasn’t quite caught up with the information explosion that is about to change crime detection and punishment of criminals.
James Gleick’s The Information is an instructive guide. He reviews how Claude Shannon’s paper Theory of Information (1949) fundamentally and irreversibly changed the way we think about the very nature of what is information—how we acquire, store, distribute and process information. And what are the consequences for the future.
Let’s take a look at what the future might mean in the world of crime.
What if authorities could pre-screen airport passengers who have ‘bad intentions’? Such software is currently being tested in the Unites States. This is just the start of where we are going down the road. Finding individuals who haven’t committed a criminal act but who may commit a crime may become a public policy objective. Creating software to data mine vast stores (millions of interconnected computers) of information searching for patterns in motivation, intention, and opportunity that signal the probability that criminal behavior will follow can be expected. We are at the very early stages of how this information system will roll out. In ten years, passengers perhaps you will be asked to ‘volunteer’ to pre-screening by wearing a monitoring, tracking bracelet two weeks before your departure.
The bracelet will record all biological activity, including drugs, diet, blood pressure, your travel, and person-to-person contacts during this period. If anything out of the ordinary appears as a blimp on the screen, a human will review your data looking for patterns and make a security assessment. A passenger, whose behavior raised no flag during this period, would turn in the bracelet at check in and would be allowed to go through the fast lane. Once the software is tested for airports, it would be irresistible not to expand the scope of tracking to other areas of life.
Basically crime arises because we can only imperfectly monitor individuals. We don’t really know what most people are up to. We can only make guesses. We can profile on gender, race, age and other flawed assumptions. We have only imperfect security systems to prevent a professional thief from stealing cars, jewels, or lawn mowers. The robber who breaks into a safe or convenience store is hard to identify in advance. And it is difficult to stop, before he acts, the inside trader, who makes a killing on a stock transaction. A lot of people wouldn’t mind seeing investment bankers and politicians wearing such bracelets and their vital data tracked real time on the Internet.
Once a criminal is snared, he or she is run through the criminal justice system and as often as not thrown into prison. The old way of ‘containing’ and ‘punishing’ criminals is hundreds of years old. It is also an old analog process that will change as information explodes. If we can track and pre-screen criminals, we can surely track individuals who have ‘broken’ the law; and there will be no need to put them in prison at huge expense in order to restrict their liberty.
Digital confinement will likely be every bit as harsh as a prison cell and cost only a fraction to implement and supervise. Detention will be computerized. Just like there is software that allows one lawyer to perform the due diligence that otherwise required 500 lawyers, there will be software that runs a digital prison system that allows one guard to do the work of 500 prison guards. Software can do the judging with vastly more resources at hand than a human judge.
Crime fiction in the future may revolve around those who hack the criminal detection, enforcement and punishment software. That will pretty much eliminate blue collar, working class crime. Working their way out of poverty through crime will be an old analog story that will bring a smile to our descendants. How very Charles Dickens, they will think. As more and more information is gathered and stored, no human being will be capable to seeing the patterns or processing those patterns.
In this Brave New World, there will be no criminals. Instead, everyone is held hostages to the real time pattern recognition codes that monitor us 24 hours a day. We want freedom from crime? Here’s the price tag. We will enter a realm far beyond our ability to understand. We won’t even know that we’ve been collectively confined because the bars we will be staring through will be barcodes we need to process each and every activity of life.