If you had asked twenty, even ten years ago what the shape of crime would be in 2014, very few would have predicted the seismic impact of the internet on crime, from sophisticated fraud to nasty trolling. And very few would have asserted that it is not burglary or armed raids, but child abuse and domestic violence that would occupy a good deal of police time.
Predicting the future can be uncertain — it's certainly fun to watch old TV programmes talking confidently of wacky inventions that never took off. And none mentioning the internet or even mobile phones. But if we are to get ahead of the criminal and ensure our police and law enforcement agencies are properly equipped, then it is worth thinking ahead.
That's why earlier this year I established two expert panels, pulling together the best brains from the police, academia, the social sciences, industry and local government. Crucially I have also got young people involved, on the basis that they probably have a better idea of where technology is going than my generation does. We are, after all, at a transition phase, where most of the people taking decisions in society grew up, as I did, in the pre-internet, pre-mobile phone generation.
The first panel is a Crime Prevention Panel, which will be considering what we can do in the next five years or so to "build out" crime. And crime can be built out. Car theft is a fraction of what it was in part thanks to much better car security brought in by the manufacturers. So the panel is working on a wide range of ideas, some challenging but some relatively simple to enact. They include better design of buildings and estates, through to technological innovations to deter criminals and protect property. A simple change to car number plates, for example, to require them to be fitted with non-removable screws, would eliminate a whole raft of crime. It is also looking at what can be done through early interventions to protect young people from cyber bullying, or to provide diversionary activities away from criminal ones.
The second panel is the Horizon Scanning Panel, looking at where crime might be in ten years' time. This is factoring in technological, demographic and social changes. What are the crime implications of an increase in the population, of the more extreme weather that climate change is bringing, of the changing attitudes towards privacy and security? In terms of technology, can we identify the potential criminal opportunities before the lawbreaker does, and close them down?
Young people are well aware of the opportunity that the internet provides, but how can we get across to young people the dangers that come from living their lives online? And how can we prevent older people who may be less IT-savvy from being exploited by computer scams?
Some trends are clear. Criminals, and particularly organised criminals, have greater international reach. Fraud is no longer about a dodgy book-keeper changing a few figures in a register, but often about somebody on the other side of the world hacking into your personal financial information.
And child sexual exploitation, that most sickening of crimes, has now mushroomed in its awful potential on account of the internet, especially the dark web, even to the extent that you can order online abuse of some poor child on the other side of the globe to your own specifications while you watch. This is horrible, but how can enable the long arm of the law to be even longer and reach so far overseas?
Crime can be prevented, and it can be beaten, given the correct interventions. Nobody predicted metal theft, and for a while it caused havoc, but thankfully the actions we have taken have greatly suppressed it.
So these are the challenges for my panels: identify the crimes now happening and how we can build them out. And identify where crime is going in the future so we can head it off. Already we have some good output from the panels in terms of actions with more to come.
Norman Baker is Liberal Democrat Minister for Crime PreventionReuse content