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Policing in the future involves citizen detectives and a Pokémon Go-like app

Oct 10, 20174 mins
InnovationInvestigation and ForensicsMobile

Using the Automon app, a Dutch “police of the future” technology initiative, citizens can score points by finding stolen cars.

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How can the police induce citizens to help investigate crime? By trying to make it “cool” and turning it into a game that awards points for hits. At least that is the premise for a “Pokémon-like app called Automon” that cops are developing to get citizens more involved in investigations.

That was one example of “police of the future” technology initiatives provided by Dutch Police Chief Erik Akerboom, who has previous experience working in intelligence and counterterrorism units. Akerboom told The Telegraph that citizens would use the Automon app to photograph license plates to help police locate stolen cars.

A loose translation of what Akerboom described is that citizens would photograph license plates to find out if the car is stolen via the Pokémon-inspired app Automon. If it is, then the citizen-turned-detective scores points. And if a vehicle is reported stolen,  citizens in that neighborhood might also be tasked to search for that specific license plate. The more you find, the higher your score.

App enables citizens to find missing people

Another app the Dutch police are developing is a “Search Together” app, which citizens can use to help find missing people. The app keeps track of what areas have been searched by volunteers and what areas still need to be scoured. If a person wants to help search for a missing person, they must use the app. According to translations by both Google and Microsoft, Akerboom said something to the effect of citizens “will see that we are serious about their role” in helping out in investigations or that the cops take citizens’ roles in investigations ‘seriously.’”

Helping to locate stolen cars or missing people doesn’t seem too terrible, but those are just a couple of the “police of the future” new tech initiatives. If citizens were more involved in police investigations, would that be a good thing? Or might it lead to the type of surveillance used by the Stasi — a network of citizens turned informants who didn’t necessarily have any actual facts of wrongdoings?

Spiegel Online described the unofficial 189,000 Stasi informants as “totally normal citizens of East Germany who betrayed others: neighbors reporting on neighbors, schoolchildren informing on classmates, university students passing along information on other students, managers spying on employees and Communist bosses denouncing party members.”

The apps mentioned above are two examples of new initiatives being implemented by special think-tank like “Q” teams in police units. But they are not just focused on apps to induce the public to help in police investigations.

Another policing in the future initiative Akerboom mentioned is a new method for obtaining DNA from suspects that does not involve cotton swabs. With developer help from two universities in the Netherlands, the University of Twente and Saxion University, DNA could be obtained with nanotechnology patches. Patches are “faster and more reliable” than cotton swabs.

Software to detect corrupt police officers

There’s nothing new about algorithms that determine if a person is “suspicious” or a possible threat, but the Dutch police are going to apply something similar to their own ranks to find corrupt cops. They are developing software to detect corrupt behavior; the software is intended to prevent leaks and detect the misuse of tracking and other information. The Dutch police have often been in the news for misusing the “Blue View” detective system — for selling investigative information to the criminal underground.

The decision to involve citizens in investigations may be related to the fact that 15,000 Dutch police officers will retire and need to replaced in the next six years. New recruits will hit the streets after one year of training instead of the current three years. Additionally, there are plans to double the national High Tech Crime cyber squad over the next four years.

These four ideas were the only policing of the future plans mentioned during the interview, but there could be others, as the police seem intent upon recruiting citizen detectives.

Do you view the new initiatives to involve citizens in police investigations as a slippery slope? Do you think citizen detectives could slide into a Stasi-esque system of citizens spying on citizens?

ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.