Computers and Crime

Have you noticed that every time a device comes along to make life easier someone always finds a way to us it against us? 

Electronic banking was supposed to make moving money around easier and more secure. Now there’s more theft – and it’s not only money they’re stealing. Although, ultimately, it’s always money they’re after. It might not be your money but it could be your identity they want to use to get someone else’s money.

Relax. It’s not my intention to deter you from shopping online. There are plenty of safeguards in place. You know the drill – keep your internet security software up to date, shop on secure sites, and don’t click on links or open attachments from suspicious emails.

What I want to share, from a crime writing perspective, is an insight into the impact of computers on police work – an entry from the other side of the ledger.

Smarter Data

We don’t generally think about databases. The very word sounds boring to most people but have you ever wondered what they mean when people talk about smarter data?

Here’s one example from the USA of how computer databases help police solve crimes involving firearms: the National Integrated Ballistics Information Network (NIBIN), operated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives within the US Department of Justice.

Photo by Velizar Ivanov on Unsplash

Basically, NIBIN is a database of images of spent cartridges and bullets from crime scenes and test firings of captured weapons compiled by police across all jurisdictions in the United States – and shared nationally by those same police. It’s been in operation since the 1990s.

What’s so special about it? 

It’s digital. That means that a police officer in Los Angeles can upload an image, from a computer controlled microscope, of a spent cartridge or bullet recovered from a crime scene or fired from a weapon seized during an arrest, and use a computer to compare the image with every image in the database. Within an hour, that officer will know whether the weapon that fired the cartridge or bullet has been used in a previous crime anywhere in the USA.

NIBIN users get to connect the dots, especially if they have arrested someone with that weapon. 

If you visit NIBIN you can read some of their success stories, about how arresting a guy for one crime can solve another crime committed in another part of the country. Sometimes, a guy with a gun, picked up for a traffic violation in Los Angeles, ends up being arrested for an unsolved murder or armed robbery committed in Chicago.

In the ‘good old days’ – before computers – all that comparing of markings on bullets was done manually using a microscope and a local database of images. It took forever in a place like Chicago, where they seize thousands of crime related guns every year, and considerable skill. 

And, in case your’e wondering, there are similar databases in use by police in other countries. 

There are lots of other ways computers aid police in their work but we’ll leave those for another time.

Peter Mulraney is the author of the Inspector West and Stella Bruno Investigates crime series.

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