The Future of Techno Crimefighting


Some experts say new software tools not only help fight crime—but can prevent it.

In January, as the Miami-Dade Police Department announced that it was completing the purchase of a 20-pound surveillance drone, the San Jose Police Department continued beta-testing a video-based crowd-sourcing software program to solve crimes.

Earlier this month, the New York Police Department purchased facial recognition software, and a growing number of police departments across the country have adopted a gunshot detection system called ShotSpotter.

Technology is infiltrating every aspect of the criminal justice system, from the investigation to the prosecution of crimes—even to attempts to predict them.

According to the experts, some of whom appeared at a special panel on “Techno-Crimefighting” at the 6th annual H.F. Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America at New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice this month, these are the technology trends and issues to watch:

Security Cameras + Closed-circuit Television (CCTV)

For Dan Conley, the district attorney of Suffolk County in Massachusetts, video evidence has become de rigueur in the prosecution of most serious street crimes. “In many cases, we find video surveillance helpful,” he says. “It's a jumping-off point.”

In one case Conley's office handled recently, the murder of a 15-year-old in Boston was captured on video from a neighboring convenience store. Law enforcement used it to investigate the crime, and Conley's office called up the video during trial. The gunman was eventually convicted of first-degree murder.

Aside from security cameras mounted in private businesses, Conley says Suffolk County law enforcement routinely relies on video footage collected from cameras installed in public spaces by municipal governments and Homeland Security.

In London, where 10,000 video cameras have been placed throughout the city, video footage is frequently relied upon during the criminal investigation process. By 2008, the surveillance operation grew into Operation Javelin, which applies biometric facial and tattoo-matching software to CCTV footage. Mick Neville, detective chief inspector at the Metropolitan Police Authority, or the New Scotland Yard, who established Javelin, cautions that the program is no substitute for good police work. “99 per cent of our idents come from people, not machines,” he explained in an email message. “The vast majority from police officers looking at our online journal 'Caught on Camera,' but some from the public (images in the media) or criminal informants.”

He adds: “Biometrics and pattern recognition may be important n the FUTURE—please do not fall into the trap of thinking machines and software are the answer.”

Nevertheless, not everyone is a fan of surveillance cameras. In 2007, in the wake of increased government-funded video surveillance nationwide, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California released a report entitled “Under the Watchful Eye: The Proliferation of Video Surveillance Systems in California,” which argued that government-run video cameras can “radically alter the relationship between law enforcement and the public,” and threaten privacy rights.

“Technology has made it possible for a lot more information to be collected about who people are and what they're doing,” Nicole Ozer, the technology and civil liberties policy director of ACLU Northern California, told The Crime Report. “Once it's collected, there aren't always proper safeguards as to how it's used.”

Still, Neville insists that he sees little resistance to video technology. “CCTV has good support in U.K.,” he wrote in his email message. “My research found that the vast amount of complaints to the police regarding use of CCTV was that the police had failed to use it. … I also constantly emphasize that our use of CCTV will target criminals, not people going about their normal business. Our successes are publicized in the media to demonstrate our [aim] is to fight crime.”

But even as the debate about video technology continues, there are already efforts to innovate. Last year, the city of East Orange, New Jersey piloted a citywide surveillance system in which a computer screens video footage for purportedly suspicious and potentially criminal behavior. The police would then be automatically notified.

Some skeptics say that there are limits to the use of technology in policing, and the East Orange surveillance system is a prime example.

Paying for new technology with the idea that a computer can predict crime is “a colossal waste of money,” Prof. Dennis Jay Kenney of John Jay College, who served as a police officer in Florida, told The Crime Report. “For example, an ATM camera captures someone supposedly looking suspicious—but is it a robber, or is it a guy in line? How do you define suspicious?”

Kenney argues that while video can serve as a “great investigative tool,” the ability for law enforcement to effectively use it to stop a crime before it happens would be “rare.” Indeed, studies have found that video does not necessarily prevent crime, although it can assist with solving them.

“The problem with systems like the one in use in East Orange is an over-reliance on technology with too little recognition that policing is primarily a people business,” Kenney adds. “As such, we are looking for the quick technological fix rather than to invest in what it takes to get communities to collaborate on their own safety. We will always fail so long as we take that approach.”

Social Media

Gleaning investigative leads and evidence from social media has also become a common practice. “The savvy investigator is happy to jump on Facebook or do a Google search when looking at a case,” says Lt. John Vanek of the San Jose Police Department. “It's a routine part of an investigation now.”

In one Boston murder case, for example, prosecutors were able to prove a defendant's motive in a gang-based killing using images that investigators found on a social media site. Though part of the suspect's defense was that he was not affiliated with the gang behind the slaying—the Mass. Ave Hornets—prosecutors were able to find a picture of the defendant showing off a hornet tattoo on his MySpace page. “Technology is a boon in gathering evidence,” says Suffolk County District Attorney Conley, whose office prosecuted the case.

But all of the chatter that appears on social media sites isn't exactly fair game in the courts. Conley says that the material must be obtained constitutionally and it must be relevant to the case.

Min Cho, an Orlando-based attorney who is leading a program on social media evidence for the American Bar Association, says that it may be difficult to subpoena—directly from Facebook—information locked behind privacy settings, although you can subpoena an individual directly for any electronic messages and wall postings.

“Courts have held that unless the information is something readily accessible to the general public, then they're inherently private,” says Cho, a litigator with Holland & Knight.

The way that social media evidence can be used at trial can also vary across jurisdictions.

“The thing about social networking sites is that this is a lot of unchartered waters because it's so new,” Cho says. “Cases are coming out of state and federal courts to chip away at what's permitted and what's not. Every state has their own laws and set of rules, and unfortunately, you're not going to get much uniformity.

“The good thing is you always have to step back from it and a lot of it is like common sense. But you can't tell me that a prosecutor wouldn't smile if someone admitted to a crime on Facebook.”

Predictive Policing

Police departments across the country are increasingly turning to data-driven methods for crime prevention. New York City is credited with starting the trend in 1994, when the police department began gathering weekly crime statistics through its CompStat program (short for “computer statistics”) as an accountability measure, and to monitor crime trends.

Now that data gathering is increasingly standard practice, the trend is turning toward so-called predictive policing, where software based on probability algorithms will attempt to anticipate the where, who, and when of crime. Police departments in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Santa Cruz, California, are currently piloting the approach.

Soon, through number crunching, police can identify the likely location and time of a burglary, says George Gascon, who was San Francisco's police chief prior to his appointment as district attorney in January. Using a traditional policing approach, law enforcement could then monitor the area in anticipation of the crime, and either prevent the crime or detain the perpetrator soon afterwards.

Predictive policing could also help address the root causes of crime, according to Gascon.

“If the suspect is a drug addict, we could use that information to create a model to contact this person and lead to interventions instead of arrest and prosecution,” he says. “With a pending crime, should we try to make contact with the suspect and then start to do wraparound case management? The issue is that there is no predicate offense.”

Gascon acknowledges that predictive policing does have the potential for abuse, though he ultimately sees it catching on. “There is also a danger: How good do we want the government to get at connecting all this info? How do you protect the privacy of these people?” he told the HF Guggenheim Symposium. “I believe these are legitimate concerns, but not good enough not to do it… Instead of looking at how to arrest the next offender tomorrow, we need to look forward 10 years. How do we stop people from engaging in that behavior to begin with?”

Cyber Crimes

Thanks to technology, common crimes are now playing out differently and on an increasingly anonymous and potentially global scale.

“I think there is a growing cyber crime problem that we are continuing to chase a bit behind the curve…bank robbery, fraud are all facilitated by the internet,” Zachary J. Miller, section chief of the FBI's Cyber Criminal Division, said at the symposium.

Technology also makes it easier for criminals from around the globe to connect and partner with each other to pull off financial frauds, and the anonymity of the web can make it more challenging to locate and stop online perpetrators, Miller says.

But last October, through a combination of high-tech sleuthing and traditional investigation methods, the FBI was able to crack down on an international syndicate that used malware, called the Zeus botnet, in an attempt to steal $220 million from small businesses, churches and individuals.

“Investigating financial fraud-related cyber crimes requires law enforcement to enter new territory while using traditional policing methods,” Miller explains to The Crime Report. “The FBI was able to disrupt an active group of cyber criminals who were utilizing the Zeus botnet, for example, by using various techniques, including undercover operations targeting the many online web forums catering to the buying and selling of illegal services and stolen financial information where cyber hackers are oftentimes gathering information.”

Last month, the U.S. Department of Justice and the International Association of Police Chiefs sought to make it easier to pursue cyber criminals by calling on Internet service providers (ISPs) to retain consumer data for up to two years so that it can be used to investigate cyber crimes.

Groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation have been critical of ISP retention policies out of concern that it would violate privacy rights, and create a cache of data vulnerable to hackers.

The FBI's Miller, however, contends that the current ISP retention policies are inadequate and inconsistent and they are “having a chilling effect on the investigation of cyber crime.”

GPS Monitoring + Location-based data

Akin to a prison without walls, corrections departments are increasingly relying on Global Positioning Systems (GPS) to track probationers and parolees.

Anecdotally, outfitting offenders with GPS devices can help law enforcement respond to crimes. Suffolk County DA Conley, for example, says Boston police were able to apprehend a probationer soon after he committed a murder because his GPS ankle bracelet documented his whereabouts.

“Our argument at trial was that these GPS records showed him casing the area, returning home very briefly to retrieve the murder weapon, and then using it,” Conley explains.

When it comes to crime deterrence, however, research has not shown GPS technology to have a strong influence. A study by the Center for Evidence-Based Corrections at UC Irvine, for example, found that GPS monitoring appeared to have “little effect on parolee recidivism.”

Prosecutors also note that cell phones—which provide location-based information about the user—have become a go-to source for locating a suspect or proving their presence at the scene of a crime. So much so that San Francisco DA Gascon has noticed that Bay Area drug dealers have curbed their use of cell phones because they are now aware that the police can trace the devices.

How law enforcement are using location-based data from cell phones is something that civil liberties advocates are watching closely.

The Electronic Communications Privacy Act was written before location-based technology existed, and according to ACLU Northern California's Ozer, the current standards for law enforcement access to the data are “fuzzy.”

The ACLU and web companies such as Google and Facebook are currently lobbying for an update to the Act that would require law enforcement to obtain a warrant before they could access location-based information. Litigation on this issue is also pending.

“[Tech law] is a body of law that's developing and the law is always behind,” District Attorney Gascon said at the HF Guggenheim Symposium. “I don't believe the body of law in this area is mature enough to deal with this and I don't think it ever will because technology moves too fast.”

That may just be the rub.

Technologies that facilitate crime fighting—for all their potential—are also accompanied by complications related to privacy, civil liberties, logistics, and cost.

“Law enforcement and local communities often see technology as a panacea to make communities safer without asking the hard questions,” argues Ozer of ACLU Northern California, “like how effective is this technology and how much money will we spend that will then not be used on strategies like community policing and improved lighting, which have been proven to be effective at making communities safer?”

Members of law enforcement also doubt that drones or computers could ever supplant human investigation and ingenuity. As Neville of the New Scotland Yard puts it, when it comes to policing, “people and processes are more important than technology.”

Bernice Yeung is a contributing editor to California Lawyer. She is also a former HF Guggenheim News Fellow.

Comments are closed.