Bear with me when I tell you that some dickheads have been calling 2013 the "year of the tablet". (In the lead up to Christmas, one shop chain reckoned it was shifting one every second). In truth, the year won't be defined by technology, it'll be defined by blood; though technology will help.
iPads, Kindles and Google Nexus 7s won't own this or any year until people start a riot or bring down a government with them. Don't make me tell you about the Arab Spring and Twitter or the UK's BBM themed riots. Technology doesn’t cause crime in any straightforward sense, but it almost always helps. Just ask the cyber-criminals who stole an estimated $2 billion (£1.2 billion) – that's two billion dollars – last year when they successfully pulled off the largest bank robbery in history from behind their computers. Oh wait, you can’t, because we still have no idea who they are.
Meanwhile, ATM fraud is evolving so quickly that the banks can barely keep up with the fraudsters who are 3D-printing credit card skimmers that look exactly like anti-skimming devices. Even good old fashioned grand theft auto is going digital: car thieves have started hacking push-to-start BMWs. So how is the future going to help make Britain’s criminal underworld even richer?
Graham Johnson is an the ex-News Of The World investigative journalist who hangs out with Merseyside gang members and blags his way into unfinished Olympic stadiums. He talks about drug prices in kilos and has received death threats following his exposés of some of Britain’s biggest drug dealers. He also eats fried egg sandwiches without bacon and we hang out with him a lot. I asked him how he sees the future of organised crime in Britain.
According to Graham, a major power shift is already underway in Britain’s criminal underworld. The firm grip formerly wielded by The Cartel and other old-school organised crime syndicates over the UK’s multi-million pound drug trade has been loosening since the early 2000s, as a new generation of ruthless street gangs has begun to seize power.
“The kids on the estates that the godfathers used to call the 'rats' have got guns now,” says Graham. “At some point they started to think, 'Why do we have to be the lowest rung on the ladder? Why don’t we start killing these big, fat multi-millionaires and taking their graft off them?' And they did it. A number of big crime families and godfathers have been knocked off the page.
“These gangs are a lot more unpredictable, a lot more violent and hot-headed than the rational economic godfathers," Graham continues. "When there is an absence of violence in a drugs market it usually means business is booming for organised crime and drug sales are through the roof. Violence is bad for business, but these kids don’t care. If you don’t pay your bills or you say something out of line you’ll get a hand grenade through your window.”
These ambitious young men look set to continue their dismantling of traditional underground power structures for the foreseeable future. As competition in this criminal landscape gets increasingly ruthless, adversaries will be forced to innovate or die. The latest tech developments are likely to play a key role and the young are more adept at innovating than the old. Just think of the way your gran insists on referring to your iPhone as "your game" (then go round her house and stick a hand grenade through the letterbox).
At street level, a new medium of real-world “drug dealing 2.0” is already being anticipated by a host of “geosocial” role-playing games. Underworld for the iPhone uses GPS to allow users to compete to buy and sell (virtual) drugs in real-time and space. How long until this app and others like it are cracked or re-coded for “jail-broken” devices, shattering old models of street-level distribution as picking up becomes peer-to-peer? Dealers in the US are already accepting card payments using mini-card readers that plug into their iPhone, and thousands of people are buying drugs online through the deep web, that murky, anarchic part of the internet people visit when they're doing all that stuff that will probably have a long term effect on their sense of self-esteem. The future of drug dealing? Think Amazon Marketplace or the JustEat app, but with faster delivery times.
The means of narcotics production themselves are also likely to change. This report commissioned by the UK government predicts that by 2025 illicit drug manufacturing may well have gone “open-source”. Marc Goodman from the FutureCrimes think tank predicts that, “we will move away from a plant-based narcotics world to a synthetic one. Why do you need the plants any more? You can just take the DNA code from marijuana or poppies or coca leaves and cut and paste that gene and put it into yeast. You can then take the yeast to somebody and get them to make the cocaine for you, or the marijuana, or any other drug.”
A Glasgow University chemist named Lee Cronin has already found a way to turn a 3D printer into a universal chemistry set, designed to enable the download of prescription medications. You get the sense that, at some point in the not too distant future, Mr Cronin's breakthrough will be being celebrated with gusto by students at universities everywhere, as they flick the switch from "prescription meds" to "off our fucking heads".
A prototype 3D firearm
The open-sourcing of crime won’t be limited to narcotics. With Defense Distributed having already created and shared downloadable plans for the first open source 3D-printable “Wiki weapon” components – key parts of a semiautomatic AR-15 rifle – enforceable gun control laws look set to become a thing of the past. So everyone gets to find out how it feels to have a second amendment in their lives. Well, everyone who knows how to use 3D printers, which probably isn't the old fuckers at the NRA, but probably is unhappy teenage loners who feel they have scores to settle with the world.
As you've probably figured out by now, if it's left unchecked, 3D-printing will revolutionise online piracy. The Pirate Bay already hosts a number of 3D-file blueprints and has claimed that “physibles” will be the “next step in copying”. Since 3D printers can work with a range of materials – including metal, glass and ceramics, as well as plastic – the expectation is that “home 3D printing will get so good that the items it produces will rival simple items we now buy”.
An artist's impression of a scary robotic criminal
Of course, it wouldn't be the future without robots or the people who believe that as soon as they're turned on, they'll start acting as unstoppable, mechanised drug dealers, rapists and murderers. A 2010 article co-authored by a leading British computer scientist, a senior advisor to Interpol, and none other than former Crimewatch presenter Nick Ross, warned of “crime’s coming robotisation”.
The article anticipates a near-future in which criminal roboteers sit in garden sheds watching YouTube videos that teach them how to engineer crude copies of robots already used by the police and the military, and using them for their own nefarious ends. Potential outcomes range from terrorist attacks to good old-fashioned voyeurism – with a mechanised twist: “Will your humble Roomba vacuum cleaner be used to transmit naked videos of you?” the article asks, ominously.
I got in touch with Nick Ross for the lowdown on the “coming robot crimewave”. As much as I'd like to tell you otherwise, it didn't seem like he'd spent the five years since he left Crimewatch slowly losing his mind in a pitch black panic room. He's actually kinda cool. “This is hardly an imminent threat” says Ross. “We were misled by wildly bad conjecture in the 50s, which envisaged humanlike androids doing housework.” However, “We are already seeing fleets of robots that combine mobile electronic gadgetry with human guidance – the most obvious examples being UAVs or drones. How long will it be before such military hardware is democratised? And how are we planning for this?”
Nick Ross quite plainly not watching the crime going on right behind him. YOU'VE GOT ONE JOB, NICK.
Despite his cautious language, Ross ultimately concedes that Sarah Connorwas right. “Maybe in years to come modern day Fagins will be able to recruit mechanised artful dodgers to pick pockets or, like their military counterparts, target people for remote assassination. And maybe one more distant day we will have true robotic crime, whereby machines take the law into their own hands with their own internal motives and express intent.”
FutureCrime’s Marc Goodman takes a slightly less alarming view: “In time, robots could be used to assist in bank robberies, street holdups, and heists of high-value delivery trucks, perhaps with a combination of ground robot assailants and aerial lookouts.
“Alternatively, drug cartels could adapt such devices to be drug runners and mobile vending machines, who would provide a fix if offered the correct asking price. Unlike regular vending machines, such devices could be defensive and possibly lethal. Given 360-degree vision, the bots, under imminent threat of capture, could automatically destroy the internal stash.”
An even larger underworld power shift is happening internationally. In the next decade, the UK drug trade will see increasing involvement from Mexico’s notoriously violent drug cartels. As the Mexican cartels have grown increasingly powerful, they have effectively subsumed the competition from neighbouring Venezuela and Colombia. According to Graham, “This means cheaper cocaine, because rather than being brought in as break bulk, it will be containerised. We know that the Mexican cartels are targeting Britain because the price of cocaine is high and the market hasn't yet reached saturation level. So, we’ll have cheaper cocaine and lots more of it.”
But that's old hat. This is the real shit…
BEAMING – a contrived acronym for "Being In Augmented Multi-Modal Naturally-Networked Gatherings" – is a new kind of “remote presence” technology that makes Skype look like sending a telegram and is the closest thing to actual teleportation you’re ever likely to experience. “Beaming” will allow people to “transport” themselves to locations thousands of miles away at the touch of a button. How will it work? Information from the destination environment is fed to users’ senses through 3D glasses, earphones and full-body “haptic feedback” suits in order to give the sense of being physically present at another location.
At the same time, users’ actions, facial expressions, speech and/or thoughts are monitored and streamed to the destination, at which point they are (dis)embodied either as an avatar, hologram or a humanoid robot. Imagine something in between The Matrix and Tupac at Coachella, and you’re not far off.
Ray Purdy, a senior research fellow at UCL, believes that "these technologies will be pervasive in ten years time". As well as opening up all kinds of possibilities to thieves and identity fraudsters, another threat posed by remote presence technologies arises, according to Ray, from the increasing “erosion between cyber security and physical security”. What does this mean in layman's terms? “Imagine punching someone in a room in Sydney in the face when you are in a room in London.”
That might sound hilarious, but the potential implications of this technology are pretty sinister. Physical assault and pain inflicted through haptic technologies will no longer be limited by assailants’ bodily strength or abilities, and could comprise an excruciating range of never-before-felt synthetic sensations, qualitatively different to those associated with an “IRL” beating. Want to remotely torture someone? There’s an app for that.
If you want something to be scared about in the more immediate future, an altogether more low-tech criminal enterprise looks set to make a comeback: outlaw motorcycle gangs. The Hells Angels and Outlaws – notorious rivals – have maintained a low-key presence in the UK for decades, with the high-profile shooting of a Hells Angel on the M40 in 2007 the last time their hateful light really flickered. According to experts, that's set to change, though.
“There’s no doubt that the Hells Angels and other biker gangs use their international connections, their mobility and their bottle to smuggle and sell drugs,” says Graham. Europol spokesperson Soren Pedersen confirms that members of Australia's Rebels and LA’s Outlaw-allied Mongols have both been sighted in the UK in recent years, potentially establishing drug trafficking or money laundering operations here. “In Britain I think people tend to think that one percenters are a bit of a joke, just a bunch of fat guys in leather polishing their bikes,” said another Europol agent. “But if you look on the continent, these gangs are intimately involved in all kinds of criminal activity.”
Still, I guess by that point we'll be able to blow them away in clouds of 3D pistol smoke.
Graham Johnson’s books, Young Blood and The Cartel II are out later this year.
Nick Ross’s book Deliver Us From Evil is out in May.
Follow Theo on Twitter: @TheoKindynis
Illustration by Marta Parszeniew.
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