Robocop crimes spell end for Inspector Morse

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The Independent Online

Today's science fiction looks set to become tomorrow's scientific fact as the fight against crime becomes ever more sophisticated and technically advanced.

Forget Inspector Morse and The Bill - crime in 20 years will more closely resemble the high-tech exploits featured in futuristic films such Robocop and Blade Runner.

At least that is a scenario being depicted in a new Government-funded report about offending trends. New types of crimes will include the theft of peoples' identities, and killers will be caught by retrieving the memories of their victims.

A new breed of master criminals may also emerge - the computer-literate elderly. By the year 2020, most profitable offences will be committed electronically and the criminal Mr Bigs will rely on brain not brawn, according to a discussion document produced by a crime prevention panel at the Department of Trade and Industry.

The panel of experts suggests: "As people live longer - and possibly retire earlier - there may be a perceived lack of a constructive role in society. Just as with any other socially excluded group this might lead to crime... In the electronic world, physical capability is not a limiting factor.

"With time on their hands, there is no reason why an empowered small agent [master criminal] might not come from the ageing population."

The report, Just Around the Corner, offers a glimpse into life in Britain in 2020. It warns that individual criminals, rather than gangs, are likely to become more dangerous in the future. "The threat is of an empowered small agent capable of creating crime and havoc of a level previously limited to organised or career criminals," says the study.

The Crime Prevention Panelforesees a split society: on one side, the wealthy and technology-skilled who live in an isolated world dominated by gadgets and obsessed with security; on the other, a group of poorer, disenfranchised individuals. As traditional society breaks down, the level of criminality and violence will rise.

"Consumerism, rather than communitarianism, is expected to be the predominant social philosophy," suggests the authors, who include representatives from the police, the Home Office, and criminologists.

Electronic crimes will replace traditional property offences such as burglaries and car thefts, which will become increasingly risky for thieves as all goods become tagged with hidden tracker devices.

Criminals with knowledge of how to commit cyber crimes will pose a growing threat. "The clear danger is being at the mercy of a small technological knowledgeable elite. Those without information communications technology knowledge wanting to commit crimes, however, may turn to more expressive crimes, such as violence and disorder," says the study.

In future, access to goods, computer information, and services will depend on proving your identity. Individuals will be automatically identified through their physiological and behavioural characteristics, known as biometics. This includes patterns in their retina, fingerprints, pulse, and even the way they stand. As a result, the experts believe, "your identity will increasingly have value and therefore will become a target for crime".

This will include producing counterfeit identities and using extortion and violence to force people to provide access to goods and credit.

Chemically produced drugs will be mass-made in mini-laboratories, although computer programmes that stimulate the brain will become an alternative addiction to narcotics.

On the positive side, law enforcers will also be able to harness new technology to fight crime. Offenders may be tracked down by their unique odour, which will be recorded on "artificial noses".

Advances in DNA analysis will allow the police to obtain a detailed physical description of a suspect from a single cell.

Detectives will also be able to solve crimes by electronically retrieving the memory of a victim of a mugging or murder. "Neuro-chemical technology may provide greater access to memories of the living and, possibly, the recently deceased," says the report.

And, of course, an individual's every movement will be captured on camera.