Opinion

The Long Arm of Criminality

April 29, 2024 487

Major components of modern society are set up to manage and control criminals and what they perpetrate. The police, laws, and their operation are a major part of any economy. The prison system and other forms of punishment, or attempts to rehabilitate offenders, use massive resources. Then there is the large-scale commercial enterprise of insurance and protection against crime. On top of this, it is impossible to turn on the television, enter a bookshop, or search the internet without coming across crime fact and fiction. What would society be without crime?

But beyond all these consequences of criminals’ actions, there are small details of daily life that remind us of the impact of what offenders have done. Personally, I recall a deviously nasty extortion campaign every time I struggle to open a new bottle of milk. In the UK, plastic milk bottles have fixed below the screw top a tightly glued tab. It takes some effort to tear this off. It would be extremely difficult to fix it back in a way that did not indicate it had been tampered with.

Closeup view of  fingers pulling open safety seal

Tamper-proof packaging is now standard on all sort of foodstuffs. Do you struggle, like me, even to rip open a package of lettuce or a cellophane-wrapped bag of buns? These cunning devices had their impetus from the extortion crimes of Rodney Whitchelo, a retired police officer. In the late 1980’s, he put poison and razor blades into baby foods as well as other products. Putting these on supermarket shelves he demanded money from the manufacturers in order to tell them where these dangerous products were. He managed to avoid detection for a long time because he kept in touch with his old colleagues in the police who were carrying out the search for the culprit. After a major investigation, he was eventually caught. But since then, manufacturers have been extremely careful to ensure that the containers of their products are not easy to tamper with.

It takes organisations the experience of such crimes to wake up to the controls they must put in place. That is now even more evident in the realm of online banking. For years banks were cavalier about access to accounts. This facilitated a tsunami of fraudulent theft that still amounts to billions of dollars every year, across the world. At last, the banks are waking up to the need to introduce controls that can reduce fraud. However, it is their customers who have to struggle with tamper-proof devices.

A neighbor of mine with both a master’s and a doctorate in a highly numerate area, having got marks of 90 percent in statistical courses, who retired after running a department of over 100 people, was recently reduced to tears when attempting to open her online bank account. The interactions required with algorithms, the postal system, her phone, and arcane requirements for passwords across many stages, made stressful demands. These barriers are, of course, all set up to make it difficult for villains to take advantage of any easing of access to other people’s money. But the price of building fences for criminals to jump over is that we all have to become hurdle racers as well.

Professor David Canter, the internationally renowned applied social researcher and world-leading crime psychologist, is perhaps most widely known as one of the pioneers of "Offender Profiling" being the first to introduce its use to the UK.

View all posts by David Canter

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