(Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from our forthcoming book, 20/20 Foresight: A Futurist Looks Ahead to the Ten Trends That Will Shape the World of 2020, which I am writing with the able assistance of fellow futurist Simon Anderson, host of www.futur1st.com. This chapter, written by Simon Anderson, takes a look at the future of crime and law enforcement.)
Recently, a major theft occurred involving the Bitcoin, a primary player in the new “cryptocurrency” market. In this attack, nearly $500,000 worth of this new currency was stolen. Stored on a host of computer networks throughout the world, Bitcoins exist only in digital form and are nearly untraceable. A crime like this wouldn’t have been possible just a few years ago, and although crime has existed for millennia, the types of crime (and the methods used to prevent and punish it) will look astonishingly different in the near future.
To help us better understand what crime will look like in the next decade, let’s observe two young brothers, Rick and Allen, who grew up in bad neighborhood and somehow survived living well below the poverty line. Although their living quarters often changed, the presence of crime was always a constant. Despite both growing up in the same difficult environment, the two brothers couldn’t have had a more different reaction to their upbringing. Rick was first caught pickpocketing when he was twelve-years-old. His older brother Allen, on the other hand, decided at an early age he was going to become a police officer. Let’s follow them into the early 2020’s to see how upcoming changes in both crime and law enforcement shaped their lives.
One cold winter night, their mom left home and never came back, even though Rick was just fourteen and Allen sixteen. Rick was placed in a foster home, but ran away soon after and supported himself by shoplifting. He was good at it and sold his stolen items mostly for “old cash” (not the more easily traceable polymer cash beginning to be being used in the United States and Canada.) This continued for months until one day, as Rick was eyeing an expensive new 5K-resolution 3D camera and planning how to steal it, he was startled by a loud voice calling out “security alert!” Rick waited for a few minutes, and not seeing anyone approaching, took the camera. Just as he reached the door, he was apprehended by a member of mall security and a local police officer. Rick was surprised to find out that a complex new security system had identified that his body and eye movements, as well as his heart rate and skin moisture levels were highly indicative he was about to steal something. The “predictive” security alert was not only warning him not to steal, it was also alerting law enforcement.
Shortly after his arrest, Rick was interrogated in a room with only a small table and an odd-looking chair. From a speaker he couldn’t see, he was asked a series of questions. To him it seemed as though the person asking the questions could read his mind. Within a few minutes, he confessed he was planning on stealing the camera and that he had been shoplifting for months.
What Rick didn’t realize was that there was no person on the other side asking questions and “reading his mind.” An advanced interrogation system was being tested in that police department, and so far it had proved to be startlingly effective. The system used complex algorithms to process data from a variety of biological sensors, and would adapt its questions based on the physiological response of the person being interrogated. After a little fine-tuning, it quickly became the most effective lie detector yet developed.
With his full confession, Rick was convicted. Because he was a minor, and because the judge was wary of charges made using on this new technology, he was given a lenient sentence of three months in juvenile detention. This experience was enough for him to swear that he would never physically steal anything again. Rick knew he had to find a new way to support himself.
Always a quick study with computer systems, Rick decided to take the next few months to develop new password cracking software that could steal credit card information and social network profiles. He could then sell this software to buyers all over the world and take payments in nearly untraceable cryptocurrency. After years of warnings and pleading from companies to use biometrics instead of the now not-so-secure passwords most people had stopped using passwords almost completely, although there were still a few that thought a password such as their dog’s name plus their house number was plenty secure enough to protect their online bank account. It would usually take Rick less than fifteen seconds to crack these “secure” passwords by using his new software to execute a program that aggregated and data-mined all relevant public social network profiles as well as any updates they had posted or viewed. Most criminals found using this type of software much easier to use than creating complicated algorithms to “blindcrack “ a password without using social network and other available information.
Interestingly, police were now using similar technology to predict criminal activity and involvement. By analyzing a person’s social networks, their web searches and previous location data, the police could determine (with reasonable accuracy) what types of crimes that person was or soon to be involved in. They hadn’t used it to arrest anyone yet though, because legislation was falling further behind the rapid advancements in technology. Rick knew he only had a few years left before financial companies and social networks only accepted a biometric log-in. He intended to make the most of those few years.
By the time Rick was nineteen his prediction about password use came true. Major companies were no longer allowing password-based account security, and his previous method of generating income was obsolete. Since he was anticipating this, he had spent a great deal of time attempting to create an expensive program that could mimic biometric log-ins. Unfortunately for him, bio-metric log-ins couldn’t be “guessed” and were extremely difficult to fake. In fact, he thought attempting to hack them was more likely to get him arrested again than anything else, so he gave up on the venture.
At about this same time, Rick was contacted by an anonymous person asking if he could write a program that would change where a company sent a large shipment of valuable 3D printing cartridges. He had never thought of this criminal opportunity before, but after a few weeks, he had the first version of his software virus worked out. To test it, he had a large pallet of dog food delivered to an upscale restaurant during their dinner rush. It worked—much to the confusion and embarrassment of the restaurant owners—and now he had a new business.
Soon, Rick was sending all kinds of shipments all over the world, and before the targeted company would even notice its loss, his program would change everything in the system back to its original settings. The address that the shipments were sent to would disappear from the records without a trace, and the numbers of items shipped would be instantly modified so that they looked right to whoever verified the shipments. But, since everything was usually automated now, an actual person rarely even looked at it.
Just before his final arrest, Rick began working on the most advanced version of his hack yet, a virus that was impossible to detect with current antivirus software. This new “zero-day virus” would also infect the machines of the intended receivers of each rerouted shipment. If he could change their records also, it would take months for them to realize that they had been hacked. And it was because of this new project that Rick eventually got caught.
Once again, it was the human component that failed. After spending a few fruitless hours attempting to use the internet to implant his malicious code into the automated shipping systems in a local warehouse, Rick became frustrated enough that he decided to physically break into the warehouse and transfer the software to the computers himself using the Near Field Communications (NFC) chip on his mobile device. After disabling the security system and locating the correct computer, Rick transferred his file in seconds.
What he didn’t realize, though, was that a miniature security robot had been following him since he entered the building and had alerted the police who were now on the way. After Rick reset the building security to cover up that he had been there, he turned around to be greeted by three police officers who arrested him. He was angry with himself because he broke his only rule and physically committed a crime! Thankfully for Rick, his brother Allen was not the one to make the arrest. The last time he checked, Allen was a street cop in a different part of the city.
Even though they had similar beginnings, Allen’s life took a completely different course. Since he was sixteen when his mother left, Allen was able to enroll in a new government military program for at-risk youth. He knew this could give him a head start on the training he needed to become a policeman. After he finished school, he completed two years in the National Guard and was able to secure a position as policemen in his old home town.
With robots now taking up many positions in factories and doing routine jobs once held by low-skilled workers, many people were now out of work. Because of this, while many types of crime (such as shoplifting) were dropping due to the advances in technology, the amount of street crime had been increasing over the last half decade. Since it was usually based on opportunistic criminals taking advantage of others in unplanned situations, such as someone with an expensive watch walking near them, officers found it difficult to accurately predict when and how these crimes would happen and that made it much harder to prevent.
Even though he had a background in military intelligence, Allen asked to start his law enforcement career as a street cop because loved the new technology. For example, as he walked down the street a facial scanner would silently alert him if any known wanted person was nearby. A veteran policeman told Allen these new scanners weren’t like the first versions to see widespread use starting in late 2011. Those older models needed to be within 2-5 feet of the person to have a clear view of their face. The new version now had a variety of technologies that could be used to “see” thru facial hair, sun glasses and even a full ski mask. Criminals quickly realized elaborate disguises were now of little use, and actually made them look suspicious.
These new devices were also much lighter, and no longer needed to be attached to a smart phone. Additionally, he was issued the latest model of the “Bodyguard” electronic control device, which was a forearm-length glove that incorporated a stun gun, video camera and shield plate used to deflect attacks, as well as many other useful features. These tools made Allen’s job as a police officer easier and he was well aware of how much the technology was changing law enforcement.
After a few years spent successfully advancing in his first job, Allen’s enthusiasm and natural ability were recognized and he was promoted to the drug crimes department. Naturally grown drugs such as marijuana and mushrooms were now legal (or at least decriminalized) in a number of states, and most people had stopped using heavier drugs such as heroin and methamphetamines because of their negative side effects and improved treatment technologies. New drugs were becoming available now that had few effects and the public’s interest in spending government money to prevent people from using these drugs was fading.
After excelling in his new role, Allen was soon tasked with scaling the entire department down to one unit that would primarily deal with those few users still addicted to some of the old problem drugs and unwilling or unable to get treatment at one of the new treatment facilities. Consolidating units and letting go of many of the drug enforcement officers was difficult. After dedicating their entire careers to an unwinnable battle to stop drug use, the rapid changes in technology left many officers experts in a disappearing field. Allen did his best to find positions for everyone, but as it had been with so many other professions disrupted by advancements in technology, many people simply had to start over with a new job in a completely new field.
After successfully realigning and condensing his city’s drug enforcement department, Allen was moved to a new unit working as the Chief Cybercrimes Investigator. Shortly after accepting this role, he realized he needed to address the substantial increase in the number of web-based crimes being committed against large manufacturing and shipping companies and the rapid growth of the “New Mafia” in his city.
Manufacturing and shipping companies, many of whom were still using outdated and easily accessible computers, were finding themselves victims to relentless hacker intrusions. These cybercriminals would gain access into the company’s computers and change shipping addresses and were now beginning to temporarily repurpose the factory robots to assemble a different product and have it shipped with their redirected shipments. Even though at this point the products still had to be similar, there were still many manufacturing lines that could be repurposed. While one company thought they were only producing the latest generation of mobile communication devices (or really smartphones,) their software was modified to instruct the factory robots to manufacture devices that would soon be used to intercept wireless payments in locations such as restaurants and retail stores. Changes like this would often not be recognized because of the widespread use of automated systems and the fact that the hackers would only make small batches of their products and package them with the company’s intended product. In fact, law enforcement didn’t discover that the manufacturing robots at one company were being repurposed until one day boxes full of bomb detonators were delivered to a repair shop expecting car parts. Apparently, the hacker forgot to restore the robot’s initial job instructions after fulfilling his last order of detonators.
In addition to this growing concern, another new category of crime was beginning to take hold in the city that also required attention. The formation of a group called the “New Mafia” had begun in the city and, as of yet, local law enforcement was ill equipped to deal with it. Hundreds of smart device equipped youth were now committing major coordinated crimes without even knowing each other. To earn money, they could add their mobile ID to a database controlled by a central hacking group. They would then pay a small fee to the group to be alerted to events such as “flashmob”-style mass robberies at locations and times where there was sure to a large gathering of the wealthy, such as a political fundraising dinner. Since only the participants knew when and where, and usually only at the last minute, these wide-scale attacks were nearly impossible to stop. The group or groups in control could also extort local businesses just like the “old Mafia,” but in a new way. By threatening concentrated vandalism and theft to non-payers, by dozens, if not hundreds of people, the “New Mafia” could charge exorbitant “prevention” fees to businesses that were helpless to stop the attacks.
Shortly after Rick’s arrest and conviction, his brother Allen found out and came to visit him in prison. Due to years of overcrowding in the jails and prisons, and the excellent monitoring systems now available to track freed ex-convicts, judges around the country were beginning to give lighter sentences for certain types of non-violent crime, so once again Rick was given a much shorter sentence then he could have been given. Even though it had been many years since they had last spoken with each other, Allen was able to convince his brother that no matter what new type of crime he could get involved in, with the new technology available to law enforcement, he would eventually get caught. For once, Rick understood that being a career criminal wasn’t what he wanted to do with his life. Maybe he could get a job in the police department’s new hacker division, where other ex-cons were being employed to help the police and private companies find security weaknesses and develop new methods to predict and prevent the growth of new crime.