Apple, The FBI and the End of Detective Work

If The Network’s digital eyes were able to capture his full facial view, it would likely register an anomaly, and prompt a tracer protocol to determine where the human had originated his trip and the entire route of his travel. SDetective - free imageergei’s artificial adjustment was only designed to avoid instant recognition, by slowing The Network down. The Network did not disregard humans who attempted to evade its surveillance protocols. Any human digitally caught wearing a disguise would be automatically flagged by an automated suspicious behavior tracker, and stay on a watch file waiting for another report.
– from The Unbroken Line

Wither Sherlock Holmes. The word ‘detective’ has its roots in the Latin ‘de’ which is to reverse and ‘tegere’ which means cover, in other words, ‘to uncover.’  History and everyday life, for the moment, tell us a detective is the person uncovering the clues to crimes. And pop culture has provided us with a string of memorable stars from Holmes to Friday (that’s Joe Friday from 1950s TV show Dragnet) to Crocket and Tubbs (80s TV Miami Vice) to Olivia Benson (after 17 TV seasons, yes you know who that is) and back to a resurgent Holmes. Yet despite the contemporary intrigue surrounding the famous British detective character, the joyous wonder of watching a human being use skill and expertise to wade through facts is fading with the co-opting of technology to do the tasks human eyes and brains used to do at a crime scene.

Almost every crime show has at least one regular character who stares at a computer screen all through the episode. Police work no longer functions without searching cell phone records, running through video recordings and looking for digital evidence online about the person’s shopping and dining habits. No other clues seem possible to understand when solving a case, unless one creates a digital history of the suspect and narrows the story from there. The dogged resourcefulness of Holmes and Friday is neither respected nor celebrated as effective crime-fighting, because the digital trail looms as the most important puzzle to be unraveled.

What does this collapse of the vaunted profession mean to future detectives? Will they even be worth the name or should we refer to them as digital analysts and call it a day?

The battle between Apple, the computer company, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the national police force, over unlocking a suspect’s iPhone highlights every level of the current trend. (If you’ve already forgotten what the case was about, here’s a good primer from the New York Times). Putting aside the suspect, the technology and the right to privacy, let’s look only at what this conflict means to the profession of detective. Given how the average person uses a mobile phone to make contact, research information and find addresses, there is no doubt that some evidence on the phone may be vital to a criminal investigation. The issue is, the police do not know what evidence they are looking for, but they want it all. If you watch the old detective shows, the officer has to follow a thread of information based on clues collected at the scene or from witnesses. For example, they find out a suspect participated in Golden Gloves boxing so they get his picture from a gymnasium poster announcing upcoming fights (yes The Wire). Today’s detectives do not use an initial reason to search digital data, they go straight to the phone. An assumption is made that a clue ‘may’ be contained in some aspect of the suspect’s personal data, and that is all that is required. Searching the phone is not even the equivalent of searching a house where the police can claim that the murder weapon or the stolen goods or the kidnap victim may be inside. Searching phone data is just an idea – ‘there might be something there.’

But since data mining is a task computers can do without human intervention.  If police forces continue to insist on the vitality and importance of digital over physical evidence, expecting without reason to have access to reams of data about a suspect, is there any point in maintaining humans to do the job? After all if being a detective only means pulling the digital feed off a bunch of computers, then anyone or a machine can do it…right? The ‘evidence’ the police are searching for on a phone is data, bits and bytes, which means the information can be identified by a computer using algorithms to determine if the finding is of importance to the other facts in the case. The computer can ‘read’ the content and confirm relevance faster than a human.

As noted in How to Survive the Future, if these developments play out, you, the average citizen may even have a chance to be your own detective when the surveillance and search capabilities available only to police forces become available to the population in general. Again assuming the computers are doing the analysis, why not let citizens pull their own crime scene video when they file a complaint? You can e-mail the evidence and data analysis to a judge who can issue an arrest warrant and a couple of police officers – actually maybe we’ll call them arresting officials from now on – will go and collect someone to be delivered to a jail.

For detectives clamoring for technology companies to provide access to consumers’ personal data, this could be a case of ‘be careful what you wish for.’ Every profession openly playing its hand by claiming its job is dependent on digital data, is also elevating the computer’s role in the work, which eventually leads to the profession’s demise. Detectives may be witnessing the fading end of their profession. Holmes’ remarkable skill was to attract readers and viewers who were intrigued into following his personal talent of using his brainpower and experience to solve a crime. With the end of this possibility, the detective profession will disappear and the stories describing these once invaluable crime fighters will become part of our distant past when humans were thinkers, and individual inquiry was revered.

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