The Usual Suspects: Why Smart Tech Won’t Fix Crime

The ways we define, deter and solve crime are in themselves an exercise in power with poor outcomes for a fair society, according to a new book.

A new book argues that smart crime prevent technology has left western society over reliant on tech as ways to reduce crime. Crime technology includes CCTV cameras, screening devices, DNA data bases, lighting, and fingerprinting. The book also takes issue with how we define crime and threat and what legal and ethical principles are undermined in the rush to catch offenders.

Dr. Kramer says there’s almost “a religion or fetish” around the idea of technology keeping us safer when it fact it’s not the case.“We chart a series of problems that follow from this kind of faith and the absurdities of it, suggesting that technology really can’t do what it promises a lot of the time, and instead is riddled with its own contradictions.”

An example is CCTV. “It’s often said that it will deter people from committing crime, so that assumes a rational offender; somebody who will see CCTV and be put off. But if they’re rational, they’ll find other ways to commit crimes or defeat CCTV by doing something as simple as putting on a hat and sunglasses. And if they’re irrational, they won’t care about CCTV anyway, because they’re not thinking rationally.”

Another is terrorism, how we define it and use technology to stop it, says Dr. Kramer.“Terrorism is a problematic term for us because it depends on viewpoint. For example, when an individual flies a plane into a building, it’s considered terrorism and therefore a crime, but when a powerful country bombs a less powerful country, it’s often called self defence or freedom fighting.”

What we should be thinking about is what motivates that behaviour and that should involve looking critically at our own actions, he says. “I’ve always felt it’s a bit insane for the US for example, to think it can drop that many bombs in various parts of the world and kill close to a million people in 10 years and not think that a portion of that population is going to get a bit angry and be radicalised by it.”

And in the end technology won’t stop terrorism, however sophisticated, he says. “Someone might not so easily be able to hijack a plane because we’ve made the cockpit door strong, but they can bomb the subway, another country or a newspaper building pretty easily, or put explosives in their underwear; we can’t control innovation.”

And he also questions how we define an immediate threat. “We don’t consider capitalism to be a major threat, for example, although it’s responsible for environmental catastrophe.”

While critical scholars of crime science have picked up on problems with various sorts of emerging technology, like fingerprinting or DNA, the authors’ position is a critique of the broader approach. “We’re less worried about whether a particular technology works or not, we’re looking at the whole concept, how it’s defended and what it promises, as compared to what it delivers.”
The authors believe we could address most of these problems with alternative lenses and institutions. For example, by taking a harm reduction rather than criminal approach to personal drug use or by far more effectively tackling problematic masculinity and the cultural normalisation of men’s violence, which is central to violence against women.

“The more we have this faith in technology, the more it allows us to think there’s a silver magic bullet out there, when actually the problems we’re interested in solving are much more socially, culturally, economically and politically complex,” says Dr. Kramer.

Contesting Crime Science: Our Misplaced Faith in Crime Prevention Technology by Ronald Kramer and James C. Oleson is published by University of California Press

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