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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