In 1997 I predicted in my book The Dilbert Future that someday all crimes would be solvable. My thinking was that video surveillance and other technology, such as electronic noses, would make it nearly impossible to get away with anything illegal.

There will always be crimes of passion, and there will always be insane criminals, and criminals who didn't get the memo that crime doesn't pay. And a few geniuses will always find a way to stay ahead of technology. Crime itself will never go to zero, but I'm going to double down on my prediction that technology will someday make it nearly impossible to get away with crime.

The Boston bombers were spotted on several security videos. That probably marked the point at which the public came to understand how ubiquitous video recording is. But you probably thought that sort of video surveillance is common only in cities.

Last year some presumed identity thieves went through the garbage cans on the streets in my quiet suburban neighborhood at about 3 AM. A least two neighbors produced home security video of the perps, taken from multiple angles facing the street. At some point, every home that has a security system will have video as a component. Law enforcement will know who comes and goes through nearly every front door.

Now we learn that the government might be recording every phone call, email, and text of every American citizen. At the moment, that information is used to fight terrorism. But one assumes law enforcement will someday use it more generally if they aren't already.

In twenty years, the government will always know where your car is, the same way they can track your phone. Taxis will someday only take credit cards. Busses and trains will require you to swipe an ID, and so on. If you travel, the government will know where you went and how you got there.

Or suppose someday there are enough people wearing Google Glass that nearly every crime is recorded in real time by observers and loaded to the cloud automatically. I could imagine future versions of Glass keeping a one week running record of everything you see, just in case you ever want to play it back.

Eventually, physical cash will go away, and with it the easy means for criminals to profit. Once all money is digital, how do you buy illegal services? If you're following the Bitcoin story, you know that Bitcoin technology has potential for illegal transactions, but for that reason I see the government finding a way to clamp down on it.

I can also imagine big improvements in the area of personal identification. Imagine, for example, having a smartphone, an iWatch, and a smart car. When you go to the store, the cashier will someday automatically know that you, your car, your watch, and your phone are all in the same place. That is nearly a 100% identity check. When you approach the cash register, I can imagine your phone automatically identifying itself and pulling up your photo on the register. In the future, when we are part cyborg, we won't be using driver licenses for ID; we will use our proximity to our personalized hardware. (Someone already has that patent. I checked.)

In the near future, certainly in your lifetime, law enforcement will know every front door you entered and exited, where your car has been, where your phone has been, everything you've said by phone, text, or email, and everything you have purchased. You ain't getting away with shit.

Another interesting phenomenon is that the Facebook generation has an entirely different view of privacy. When I was a kid, I could count on my classmates to keep their mouths shut if they saw me breaking a rule. Today, keeping your mouth shut isn't even a thing. It went away when privacy did. In today's world, if a high school kid does anything inappropriate in front of witnesses you can count on it reaching multiple parents in about a day. The filters are off.

On the plus side, I also predicted that a lack of privacy would lead to fewer activities being against the law. The only reason law enforcement can afford to act against drug users, or prostitution, or gambling, for example, is because only 1% of those crimes are detectable. If police could magically know every time someone violated a drug or prostitution law, the volume would be so high they would end up ignoring the entire class of crimes for purely practical reasons. And that's where we're heading.

Ironically, the more the government clamps down on individual privacy, the more freedom the residents will have. When the government can detect every sort of crime, it will be forced by public opinion and by resource constraints to legalize anything it can detect but can't stop.

Porn has already moved into the mainstream. More states are making gay marriage legal. Weed is being legalized in various states. Promiscuity has entered the mainstream. And prostitutes with websites no longer try to hide their "escort" business.

I'm reminded of a banking saying: "If you borrow $100,000 from the bank, the bank owns you. But if you borrow $10 billion, you own the bank." There's a similar thing happening with privacy and your government. If you give up a little bit of privacy, the government owns you. But if you give up most of your privacy, the government loses its power over you.

Consider the effort to control legal handguns in the United States. Common thinking on this topic is that the more the government knows about your guns, the greater the risk to liberty. But my thinking is that gun sales will go through the roof if the government ever succeeds in tracking them. You don't want to be on a list that says your house has the least firepower on your block.

I know from past posts on this topic that I'll get a lot of down votes because you hate any thought of the government reducing your privacy. Let's agree that we all have the same gut feeling that privacy is a good thing and we want to keep it. All I'm putting forward today is the idea that the less privacy you have, the more freedom you will have at the same time.

Consider the gay rights movement. The genius of the gay rights pioneers is that they increased their freedom by voluntarily reducing their privacy. By coming out in large enough numbers, gays took from the government the ability to vilify gay sex acts and gays in general. There were simply too many gay citizens to ignore or to jail. Society necessarily started to adapt, and continues to evolve.

In general, whenever privacy is lost in a democracy, it creates an opportunity for freedom to increase. The mechanism looks like this:

1.      A loss of privacy reveals how many people are involved in a particular activity and gives the public a chance to get used to it. (gays, weed, porn, etc.).

2.      Law enforcement has no practical way to handle all of the "criminals" who are now exposed. And even trying would look like a bad use of resources.

3.      Laws evolve to reflect what is practical. Formerly illegal activities become legal or tolerated because there is no practical alternative.

In the long run, privacy is toast. But what you will get in return is more personal freedom and less crime. That's a trade that almost no one would voluntarily make, but I think the net will be good.

[Update: Based on your comments, I should clarify that losing privacy in a dictatorship is always bad (Germany registering guns). But in a democracy it works opposite because public opinion matters. Great Britain, for example, has strict gun laws and a relatively low risk of initiating the next Holocaust. -- Scott]

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May 12, 2013
On May 7 I said here: "The darkest thing that can happen will be the use of the technology for purposes of arbitrary discrimination and as an enabler for corruption and nepotism."

It is now May 12, and since then it has become clear that IRS targeted groups for investigation based on their politics as early as 2010 - that senior officials did nothing when they learned of it in 2011 - and they have only gotten around to apologizing for it on the eve of a report by the inspector general of the Treasury Dept. detailing the crime.

"Arbitrary discrimination" and "enabler for corruption" indeed.

The darkest thing I warned of is already unfolding.

I no longer support any program of domestic surveillance by officials large or small because it's now clear to me that they cannot be trusted with the power.

As for crime and terrorism - I will take my chances with the criminals and terrorists rather than enable a government which engages in surveillance of private citizens and uses the tax code and the bureaucracy to investigate them based on whether or not their opinions are in alignment which some minor officials in a Cleveland branch of the IRS. I can accept a low level of terrorism as a natural risk. A government which engages in this kind of corruption is no longer an institution I can trust to "protect" me.
May 10, 2013
One of the biggest bank robberies ever happened over the weekend - $45m!

Loretta Lynch described the theft as "a massive 21st-century bank heist".

She told a news conference: "In the place of guns and masks, this cybercrime organisation used laptops and the internet.

"Moving as swiftly as data over the internet, the organisation worked its way from the computer systems of international corporations to the streets of New York City."

In New York, for example, members of the cell fanned out into the city on the afternoon of February 19, armed with cards bearing a single Bank of Muscat account number.

Ten hours later, they had completed 2,904 withdrawals for $2.4m in total, the final transaction coming at around 1.26am.

Casher crews in other countries were busy doing the same, extracting some £26m from Bank of Muscat to add to the £3m ($5m) they stole from RAKBANK in December.


Crime is changing. But it isn't going away.
And going by the fact they did the same in December, it isn't that solvable, either.
May 9, 2013
[ instead of having the defense and the prosecution try to bamboozle 12 people who can't ask questions to help render a verdict, what about having a brain monitor that can definitively identify if someone is lying or better yet, the device can actually read their mind. ]

Longer response below to the physical problem with your idea, but here's a short one: the problem you identify is real, but you're proposing a much more complicated answer than is needed. Why not just change the legal system in a few key ways to address the issue, instead of going all mad scientist on the problem? Get rid of the current jury system, for example; we have professional judges, and professional lawyers, why not professional juries, as well? They would have the experience and training to avoid getting suckered by lawyers' tricks.

Here's the longer response to why your idea won't work:

You are assuming that the mind is some kind of recorder of events, that somewhere deep down inside, the truth lies. The brain doesn't work that way at all; it's a hodgepodge of tricks and heuristics that are right often enough to be useful, but in no way should be considered reliable evidence. In the first place, the senses don't work like recording devices, so the brain isn't getting full data to begin with. Second, the brain only stores incomplete information, relying upon its pattern-making abilities to fill in the gaps during recall.

For example, look ONE TIME at this sentence, then keep reading: ALL MNE ARE CRTEEAD EAQUL

Despite the presence of three badly mangled words, what it says is perfectly understandable, because your brain knows what it expects to see. That's a great ability to have, but what the brain also does is drop the unnecessary details. 24 hours from now, without looking at the sentence again, try to reproduce it EXACTLY as written. Chances are, you'll be able to remember what the meaning of the sentence was, but you won't be able to reproduce the exact letter combinations; your brain "dropped" them, because it had the gist of what it wanted.

Of course, if you were to look at that sentence with the express purpose of remember the exact letter combinations, you would have a better chance of retaining them. But you didn't know you were going to need to do that when you first read it. And that's the problem with memory -- you only retain the details that your brain considered important AT THAT TIME. And most of the time, you don't have the ability to study what it is you are trying to remember; things are just happening around you. So your brain retains some small details, and when you "remember" what happened, it fills in the gaps with logical data to make it seem more complete.
May 9, 2013
logical conclusion of this will be a la "Minority Report".
May 9, 2013
@Admiral, how close is such a device to being able to tell the difference between someone with memories of an incident they were actually involved in, and someone who has convinced themselves they were there? Given how easy it is for memory to shift and change, all that such a machine could do would be to register what someone believes is true.

Also, I wonder if it would work the other way. If someone were capable of blotting something from their mind, of convincing themselves they were not at fault, would the machine register them as innocent?
May 9, 2013
Two words: invisibility cloak
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
May 9, 2013
As for the second half of this article... It's easy to take something to the extreme... And while yes, humans do adapt, at some point they will also rebel. We can only take so much. As with any major rebellion it starts off with conditions getting steadily worse, as if the rulers want to see how far they can push it, then, the damn breaks. One event will set the rebellion in motion.. it won't take much and it might not have anything to do with anything.

I guess it all comes down to how much we as a society can put up with the conditions put upon us.

And... for the love of God... Humans are fantastically stupid.
-2 Rank Up Rank Down
May 9, 2013
The U.S. criminal legal system is a big pile of cow poo. Don't bother arguing against it, it just is...

So what about this... instead of having the defense and the prosecution try to bamboozle 12 people who can't ask questions to help render a verdict, what about having a brain monitor that can definitively identify if someone is lying or better yet, the device can actually read their mind. Technology like this is already being developed, it'll only take time to perfect it. It would be as solid as DNA evidence... actually it would be better. If the person did the crime, there would be images in their head of the incident. If they didn't, there wouldn't be.

And please don't think this goes against the 5th... That amendment was there to prevent you from getting the !$%* kicked out of you till you fessed up.

This technology would definitively determine a person guilt or innocence.. and it could be done in an afternoon. Think of the cost savings to the state by reducing lawyers fees!
May 8, 2013
...now imagine the government has decided comic strips are illegal...
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
May 8, 2013
chuck.milner put it extremely right.
In classical democracies every action not forbidden by law is allowed,
in classical dictatorships every action not allowed by law is forbidden.
In post-democracies laws forbid so many harmless behaviours that virtually any citizen should be sanctioned.
Of course, in practice they are not, but they might be whenever it becomes useful.
May 8, 2013
This is what I've saying all along, in this forum, too -- people who fret over the loss of privacy are confusing "privacy" with "freedom". They think that freedom means not having anyone know what you are doing, but really, it is the ability to do what you want regardless if anyone knows about it or not. The Information Age has done away with our privacy for the most part, but it has ALSO done away with the government's ability to do things in the dark, like punish people for behavior that is technically legal but which it considers undesirable. Given the imbalance in power between the government and the people, that's a tradeoff that is totally worth making.

I think people who are overly concerned about privacy probably harbor a secret shame about their activities. Even things that are legal they want to do away from the view of everyone else. The newer generation, as you note, doesn't really have this perspective. This is the true legacy of Facebook: the loss of the traditional sense of shame that kept a lot of people in line. Like with most things, that is both good and bad. Good, in that shame and guilt are poor methods for controlling people's behavior, and cause a great deal of unhappiness. Bad, in the sense that even a poor method of behavioral control is better than none. It's great that we have done away with traditional shame, but we need to replace it with something else, or else our society will become nothing but a giant basket of isolated narcissists. Judging by what you see online, it may have done so already.

One note on crime, though: you are only thinking about crimes of opportunity, someone breaking into your car or your house, for example. It is true that this kind of crime will be harder to get away with. However, cybercrime does not require the criminal's physical presence, and thus is unaffected by the presence of cameras or other sensors. As more and more transactions become virtual, the amount of crime online will only increase.
+4 Rank Up Rank Down
May 8, 2013
[losing privacy in a dictatorship is always bad (...). But in a democracy it works opposite ]

Sometimes democracies change into dictatorships: again nazi-Germany is an example, but you can also look at Hungary today. Its government is giving itself more power and restricting the freedom of speech. Another example may be Russia, which was moving into the direction of democracy, and is now moving back into the opposite direction.
May 8, 2013
Two thoughts occur to me upon reading this.

1. I agree with some of your ideas around the loss of privacy in that making our formerly private actions public might remove some of the stigma that scared us into privacy in the first place (sexual orientation, political affiliations, eating/drinking/drug habits), though it could also have the opposite effect of self-censorship for some things that wouldn't quite meet that threshold for "destigmatisation", to avoid witchhunts. (in some countries, sexual orientation and drug habits would apply here)

2. As a thought experiment, imagine a world with a 0% crime rate. Consider what kind of world would make this possible, and all the implications thereof. Would you want to live in such a world?
+12 Rank Up Rank Down
May 7, 2013
I think you underestimate the intelligence of criminals. Remember that the ones we study are the ones who get caught.

Also you underestimate the lure of thinking that you are getting away with something. Look at radar detectors. A device whose only use is to allow you to evade the law or detect automatic doors. Any detection technique can be actively spoofed with sufficient technology and there is always someone waiting to sell you that technology.
May 7, 2013
Take a look at Person of Interest. It may be fiction on TV, but a lot of what is shown from a technology standpoint, is already present.
May 7, 2013
" If police could magically know every time someone violated a drug or prostitution law, the volume would be so high they would end up ignoring the entire class of crimes for purely practical reasons."

Police already do this for many drug possession laws. However, the laws remain for a simple reason: control.

Because of drug laws, police feel they can stop and search anyone at any time. They know that 30% of these searches will result in finding drugs. They can use the excuse of finding drugs to then do whatever they want.

It also helps (the police) handle complaints about their conduct. I know we hear about police conduct all the time -- but the people making the complaints are often ignored or dismissed because they are drug users.

If you get a traffic ticket (for speeding) are you going to fight it if you also happen to have some drugs with you? Or will you just keep your mouth shut?

If you use marijuana a few times a month (always at home, never in public) are you likely to complain about police or government issues, or are you afraid that maybe a neighbor (or CCTV) will show you buying your drugs?
-9 Rank Up Rank Down
May 7, 2013
Phantom II:
"For your information, there is a growing anti-semitic movement in Europe. So now that they've taken away the weapons from the Jews (and everyone else), and then gangs kill them (not too much yet, but growing), you leave the Jewish people (and everyone else) unable to defend themselves."

So, in an antisemitic environment how do you think would a newspaper headline "Jewish gang shoots dead upstanding hungarian citizen" play? Would jews feel safer or less safe after that? Particularly if an armed jewish minority were opposed by a armed nonjewish majority?

Sorry, but the jews have a history of at least 2000 years of persecution. Please accept that by now they know more than you about what works and what doesn't.
May 7, 2013
Here in the UK, our police are becoming increasingly useless to the ordinary citizen. Years of targets have meant that they are very reluctant to even formally register that a crime has been committed - as they are then targeted on their clear-up rate.

But crime is falling fast...

"Over the last five years, violent crimes dropped by 21%. Public disorder offences fell by 29%, even including the summer riots of two years ago and the tuition fees protests. Crimes involving weapons have diminished by 34% and homicides by 28%." The Guardian

Then people wonder why. It is not crime which is falling, it is a change in the way it is recorded. Our jails are fuller than ever.

But crime is changing. Traditionally 90% of crimes were opportunist - non-professionals who took an opportunity (or were desperate) and weren't professional enough to do it well.
This crime is falling fast.

Professional crime has become more technical and less visible. Most organisations don't really know how their technology works, so there are thousands of opportunities.

But most of it is not personal, but at an organisation level. Reports this morning reckon that most of the Fortune 500 company accounts were tampered with. Many organisations - both public and private - operate on the edge of what is legal. Under the pressures of a changing world, this crime is rising - fast.

There is a popular Tee-shirt slogan:
"Give a man a gun and he will rob a bank. Give a man a bank and he will rob the whole world."

And a parting thought...

In the families who can afford private education there is a tradition. The clever son goes into banking, the stupid one into politics. While that continues the criminals will always be one step ahead.
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
May 7, 2013
"that video surveillance and other technology, such as electronic noses, would make it nearly impossible to get away with anything illegal"

Whether your proposition is true depends on your definition of "anything illegal". If violations of the universal declaration of human rights count, I'd say, you're out of luck.

"No, we won't hire you, you just didn't make it through the final round of interviews."
This because the HR person googled him and saw him kiss his boyfriend on a surveillance camera outside a gay bar two weeks ago.

Of course if you define "illegal" as "violating the more or less arbitrary laws or terms of those using the surveillance equipment", you're right. North Koreans or Iranians would certainly find it much more difficult to do something "illegal" in a total surveillance society.
May 7, 2013
The darkest thing that can happen will be the use of the technology for purposes of arbitrary discrimination and as an enabler for corruption and nepotism.

A simple example which already exists is there is a web database (with extensions that run in browsers like Chrome and Firefox) which tells you the political contributions that have been made by a given emailer. So if a person is politically active, that can now be sniffed out by anyone in HR or government who wants to discriminate against individuals who hold differing views of politics. If you want a union-safe all-Democrat school district where every teacher has the same political beliefs: that is now technologically possible. It's already here.

This should scare any thoughtful person. Democracy relies on vigorous debate and an atmosphere where individuals may practice their right to speak freely without fear of retribution. This kind of technology aims at the heart of this in a stifling way because it discourages people from being politically active or engaging their right to speak freely for fear that what they say might be used against them by someone with different prejudices. The consequences of always-on digital surveillance are chilling and a right to privacy (which does not currently exist) should be explicit in Federal law for this reason alone. Many of the Founders used fictitious names when they published their opinions - especially controversial opinions. Benjamin Franklin wrote some of his early commentary using the pen name: of a woman. Anonymity has legitimate uses as an enabler of free speech and always has. A society where everyone is being tracked and their opinions written in stone in a government database in Utah named Bluffdale is not a society where genuine and interesting debate can happen. There is too much potential for abuse and for retribution.

This aspect of the technology is bad and should frighten anyone who wants to live in a healthy democracy.

The positive side is crime - it is already becoming harder. Devices with recording capability are nearly ubiquitous and are only going to become more powerful with time as they add capability and begin to integrate with clothing. Glass and the rumored iWatch are examples of what is coming. In an environment where private citizens have unprecedented recording ability (and I expect that by 2020 we will all be carrying several terabytes of storage with us at all times), criminals will have to burrow very deep indeed to avoid detection. There is a flip side as well and one which government despises - these devices also have the ability to record governmental abuses. And public outrage is only one anonymous mpeg attachment from the nearest newsroom with one click of a button. As devices become more ubiquitous, more people will be forced to behave better. This is a positive thing. And when it is used to thwart crime or document abuses or corruption it should be encouraged. But there is a darker side: it is also very enabling of new forms of stalking and new forms of personal attack. I am in a relationship with a woman who is a victim of exactly this kind of poor behavior - and currently there is nothing you can do about it.

As for privacy - most people can protect themselves by being more paranoid and trusting no one. I believe most people should use a lot more crypto with their personal files but they don't - and government doesn't want them to. It used to be a built-in feature of Windows XP but it mysteriously disappeared with later versions except in so-called "Pro" versions of Windows costing significantly more. It's simple to implement and should not cost what it does - but my suspicion is it disappeared for a reason and it is not related to economics. As it is most people have very little protection against cyber identity thieves - or for that matter hostile prying eyes - which could be anyone from a jealous ex husband to the HR people at the local school district. However the decision was reached to remove this feature from nearly all copies of Windows - it did an enormous disservice to privacy. And it was fantastically enabling for those who wish to pry.
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