The Future of Crime and Punishment

March 18, 2014
By Ilmas Futehally

New technologies put new weapons into the hands of criminals. Ilmas Futehally examines what some of these could be and if it is possible to identify the right punishment for a crime. 

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Gilbert and Sullivan said in their much loved opera Mikado well over a 100 years ago:

“My object all sublime
I shall achieve in time -
To let the punishment fit the crime-
The punishment fit the crime”.

Since then the criminal justice system has been quite predictable and clear. Once a person is found to be guilty of a crime, through the procedures set by policing, laws, courts and juries, they are subjected to fines, imprisonment lasting from a few days to life or even the death penalty (in countries that still have this.) Though one may not always agree with the specific punishment dished out in a particular case, the principles behind it are clear. But once the nature of crimes change, how will it affect our justice system? Will the nature of punishment be forced to change too?

The law enforcers and the justice system seem to be caught napping, always one step behind. Thus we see airport security beefed up after 9/11, hotel security instituted after attacks on hotels and malls being protected by close circuit cameras and X-ray machines after malls have been targeted.

New technologies have put new weapons in the hands of criminals, often to disastrous effect. Cyber crimes are already very much part of today’s world, but how far can the cyber criminals go? One of the biggest crimes so far has been that of a hacking attack that stole over 105 million records, and over a billion email addresses. These could lead the criminals to bank account details, health records and corporate networks, personal details that could be used for blackmail purposes, apart from a myriad of other uses.

Manipulation of close circuit cameras and X-ray machines at strategic location also gives access to people carrying unlawful weapons, bombs and other material. Are we about to witness a new epidemic of airplane hijacking, assassinations of leaders and takeover of strategic assets? If this sounds unrealistic and far-fetched, it makes sense to remember that in December 2009 insurgents in Iraq managed to hack into drones that were surveying the area and were able to watch the same images that US military were watching sitting in offices back home. This of course gave the insurgents a very good idea as to where to attack and when to lie low. The cost to the Iraqi insurgents was software available off the net for US$ 26. The cost to the US military for one Predator drone is $4-5 million.  The cost per flight hour of Predator is around $2,500-3,500. Talk about asymmetry!

But going beyond the cyber attack, hackers could soon be manipulating genetic code as they do computer code. This leads to another level of crime altogether. Would a bio-hacker be able to manipulate the genome code to pass on viruses or malicious worms, much as are done via the internet today? Would they be able to fiddle remotely with bio-synthetic organs such as pace-makers and insulin pumps? Even today many of these can be adjusted remotely, with the huge benefit to patients of allowing more mobility and removing the need for repetitive surgery. However, if they can be manipulated by criminals, what would they be able to achieve? Would they be able to manipulate a persons mind, hormones and moods to turn them into criminals? Will future terrorist groups have a never-ending supply of manipulated people to be able to carry out acts of terror?

Its bonanza time for trans-national crime groups who can carry out crimes in distant parts of the world without any fear of being caught red-handed.  As the criminals can transfer large funds of money and other resources across the world remotely, they can be sure of their own safety. Looking at the unbelievable damage that criminals could wreak upon the world using some of the new technologies, what kind of punishment would fit the crime? There is much discussion on neurological reconditioning of criminals, on transformation and on deterrence. In fact there is also the idea of punishing criminals for crime that would be committed in the future.

The most intriguing punishment that I came across has been recently revealed by Rebecca Roache who says that future biotechnology methods could be used to make a criminal serve 1000 years of jail in just 8 hours, by manipulating his mind to make the time pass more slowly. This would prevent the huge costs of looking after criminals in jails. It would be interesting to see what would be his reaction to the world around him once he was set free. Would he able to adjust to the world around him again, or live in a time warp, where he felt that he had been put into a time machine and sent back 1000 years, or would be just go back to the same old routines of the previous days and years?

“To let the punishment fit the crime” has never been an easy task. The nature of future crimes is only going to make it more difficult. 

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