Technology: cause or cure

24 March 2016

“The scale and reach of the internet has changed the nature of crime, giving rise to new crime types and allowing criminals to carry out traditional crimes in new ways. These crimes are sophisticated and they can create huge numbers of victims at a keystroke. As technology continues to evolve, so too do the opportunities for the criminals to exploit.”

Rt Hon Theresa May MP

Over the last twenty years crime has fallen – with dramatic reductions in theft, criminal damage and burglary. Since 1995 theft offences have reduced by 67 per cent. Increasingly, however, it is accepted that part of this decline can be attributed to growth in new forms of offences uncaptured by traditional statistics. In particular, the rise of online crime and cyber-attacks.

For modern policing, technology is both a great opportunity and a significant threat. The internet, for example, provides a wealth of new possibilities for criminals but also fresh forms of insight and intelligence for forces. To explore this theme, on Tuesday, in partnership with the Home Office, Reform held a debate with academics, policymakers and practitioners on the motion “This house believes that technology will generate more crime than it will solve.”

In support, Sara Thornton, Chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, contended that the numbers speak for themselves. Estimates from the Office for National Statistics show 2 million cybercrimes were committed in the year 2013-14 – as well as 5 million incidents of fraud (many of these were technology enabled). This is compared with a total of 6.5 million for all traditional offences as measured by the Crime Survey of England and Wales. Crimes linked to technology and their usage are thus sizeable in number.

Online crimes also pose a test for police resources. A single fraudster may create numerous victims through, for example, online scams which then require multiple interviews, recording processes and victim statements. A single keystroke can therefore cause a significant drain on police time.

In addition, with increased online activity the scope for victimisation has increased. Technology has provided new avenues for crimes to be committed remotely many miles from their victims’ homes. In 2012-13 across just five police forces 26 million indecent photographs of children were seized.  The Home Affairs Committee have also expressed concerns that the elderly may be more susceptible to these types of ‘remote’ offences due to giving away personal security details more easily online.

There is however cause for optimism. As offences such as online fraud have increased, there have also been reductions in paper-based or ‘old-fashioned’ activity like chequebook fraud or postal phishing scams. This trade-off must be taken into account when considering the overall impact of technology on crime trends.

Used correctly technology can prove to be a valuable crime-fighting tool. Digital intelligence and evidence gathering can enable forces to not only be more efficient but also to focus on prevention. For example, tablets can enable officers to collect video evidence and breaking online networks offers the opportunity to disrupt fraudulent behaviour and stop further victimisation.

Digital crimes also create new forms of evidence. Violent crimes may require DNA evidence to be collected immediately at the crime scene whereas digital footprints may be longer-lasting and more widespread. The destruction of digital, rather than physical, evidence also poses new challenges to offenders which may prove valuable for police investigation as well as increasing the fear of being caught.

There is also a need to reflect on past trends. San Francisco’s Chief of Police, Gregory Suhr commented that historically criminals have often been ahead of the curve and time is required for governments and industry to catch-up. For example, offenders developed methods to enable car theft years before the first car immobilisers and alarm devices emerged. There is hope therefore that in the future police practitioners will catch up with online thieves and fraudsters, increasingly learning how to disrupt patterns of crime and prevent these new forms of offending.

It is also remains clear however, that technology is not a silver bullet. Only by turning data into actionable intelligence will new technologies realise their full potential. Will this mean technology will solve more crime than it creates? For many policymakers and practitioners, the jury is still out. On the night however, optimism won outright and the motion was defeated.

Elizabeth Crowhurst, Researcher, Reform

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