Open Source

Open source crimebusting

Chad Perrin writes that we may start seeing the principles of open source development applied to law enforcement in the future.

Tuesday's article, Why are crime rates dropping?, addressed the potential reasons for recently dropping crime rates. Some of the explanations proposed by law enforcement personnel involved new uses of information management and technology, though in the end, such factors probably played a very small role at best in the reduced crime rates. The future may have more in store for the innovative use of technology to solve crime, though.

A recent headline at "social news" site reddit may be a sign of times to come. User whateverthenameis asked of the reddit community This guy killed my friends dad can anyone help?

The likelihood of getting usable results is an open question, of course. Even if a good enough enhancement of the image is achieved to help identify the man caught on camera, it probably will not be good enough to serve as evidence in a court of law. The credentials and techniques of forensic experts are subject to examination during trial, and random strangers on the Internet don't exactly prove the most useful of expert witnesses. Still, it could help move the investigation forward, providing enough probable cause to obtain warrants or otherwise help generate leads.

Eric Raymond identifies Linus' Law (after Linux Torvalds) as "Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow," speaking of the ability of open source software enjoy the development benefits of public transparency -- in short, the benefits of security through visibility. By the same token, broadening access to (and the ability to help analyze) evidence of a crime can help improve the chances of successfully closing cases.

Better yet, if enlisting outside help in such a distributed manner becomes commonplace, a more democratic market in law enforcement may arise, with the crimes the general public most wants solved being the most likely crimes to *be* solved. This, in turn, would serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy for law enforcement policy, skewing such policy toward the crimes that are both highest profile and most likely to be solved, perfectly in line with the actual interests of the public rather than through the often unreliable filter of the mainstream news media.

Increased law enforcement effectiveness coupled with a social pressure check on the misallocation of law enforcement resources would be an ideal outcome of this sort of approach to forensic analysis. It almost certainly wouldn't interfere with the market for traditional forensic experts, even in cases of digital image analysis, of course. The aforementioned problems of the suitability of evidence to examination in a court of law ensures that. The whole exercise strikes me as a win for everyone except, perhaps, the guy who committed the crime in the first place.

Some of the image clean-up efforts in this case certainly appear promising, including not only merely attempts to enhance the digital image itself but also at least one sketch of the suspect derived from the digital image. Other "efforts" are, of course, jokes -- such as a number of supposed image enhancements that involved pasting OJ Simpson's head over that of the man caught on camera.

Whether this specific case is substantially helped by this community effort, though, the potential for future "open source crimebusting" is obvious, and I hope it's a resource that will be further developed in the future.

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About

Chad Perrin is an IT consultant, developer, and freelance professional writer. He holds both Microsoft and CompTIA certifications and is a graduate of two IT industry trade schools.

18 comments
Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

thirty years to a television show that comes appearing about unsolved crimes and calling for public help in solving them - over the years they've had different names, the most recent called Crime Busters. Please explain how this is all that different an approach to that and people putting up notices around town? edit - o

apotheon
apotheon

What do you think the chances are that they'll catch the guy? (hint: check the reddit discussion) What do you think the chances are this kind of thing will catch on?

apotheon
apotheon

Who does the recruiting for help in old TV shows? Answer: TV producers Who actually pitches in to help? Answer: almost nobody How far does it reach? Answer: check TV ratings -- less far than the Internet Really, the key differences in a case like this are that: 1. there isn't necessarily some central authority organizing it 2. the easy means of interacting with the people asking for help leverages the power of dilettantism

pgit
pgit

No idea how likely it is they'll solve this. But the concept has a patina of "Stasi" to it. Another way to put "open source law enforcement" is "tattle tail, snitch society." And in such an environment people will settle personal scores with bogus information. Knowing the system will hammer someone just because you report them on some matter is too tempting to the average mind not to avail themselves of it.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

the public to help with information on the crimes or people - usually with identifying people or stating their current location.

apotheon
apotheon

The difference between this ("open source crimebusting") and Crime Busters (asking people to submit information by going out of their way to call in with tips) is similar to the difference between an open source development model for software and the way Microsoft charges people to submit bug reports.

apotheon
apotheon

There's a big difference between what happened in this case and a legal framework for encouraging the anonymous snitch to rat out the neighbors.

apotheon
apotheon

Maybe making assumptions based on your biases is what caused the problem, though.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

across to me. Maybe a bit more explanation or different word choice may have made it sound different.

apotheon
apotheon

I think I know what I was thinking when I wrote it -- and I, at least, don't see how what you quoted in any way necessitates an assumption that the idea of getting the public to help with catching criminals in some way is a brand-new idea. It's not like I never heard of the America's Most Wanted TV series, after all.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

have made such a big deal of it or ended up with lines like this "Whether this specific case is substantially helped by this community effort, though, the potential for future ?open source crimebusting? is obvious, and I hope it?s a resource that will be further developed in the future." The whole article is about this new style "open source crime busting' as he called it - and it ain't new. edit - fix typo in title

apotheon
apotheon

Show me where the article said it was "new" and "original" to ask for help from the public. You managed to commit exactly the error you accused me of making in the same sentence in which you accused me of making that mistake. Would you like to try again?

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

that his approach in seeking help from the general public was NOT new and orginal as implied in the original post. And if you can't see that or how it's different from what you're trying to say, I suggest you see an eye doctor.

apotheon
apotheon

. . . you don't see how an order of magnitude or better improvement in case closure rate would be a big difference?

apotheon
apotheon

You just want to disagree -- don't you?

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

develop the tools needed as the police already use the best software available to do that sort of thing. All this is is a request for help to the general public, whoopy do.

apotheon
apotheon

There's a big difference between asking whether people have seen someone and getting potentially hundreds of people working on forensic analysis of images to produce better images so that perpetrators can be more easily identified when you do start posting pictures on telephone poles.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

So it isn't a new process. Instead of sticking printed pictures on telegraph poles they put a picture on the internet - just like that lost kids web site has been doing for over a decade.