The first crime of the future is abject terror today. Contemplating the misdeeds, misdemeanors and felonies likely to be common in twenty years, while sitting in a coffee shop in 2014, is like standing at the precipice of time, peering at the crashing whitecaps of the “What the fuck?” future far below. Except the thing is it’s not that far away and you don’t even have to jump to be battered by the crime waves. You just have to stay alive.
That’ll be the easy part. Most criminologists agree that by 2030 or so, violent crime, at least in places like New York City, will have continued the downward trend that began in the early 1990s. (Manhattan, meanwhile, according to PlaNYC 2030, will have been transformed into a nearly unrecognizable Qatar of glassy skyscrapers and outlandish public-private projects. Coffee shops, like the one I’m in now, will likely migrate to the upper floors of luxury condos.) The trains will run on time and the entire city will be blanketed with wireless internet, flexible screens and invisible computers. We will be both unfettered and inextricably connected. It will be a thief’s paradise.
That cloud where we keep our data—so asset-light and fluffy! Well, that cloud is about to let loose an unholy tempest.
An easy way to think about crime in the future is to think of everything you’ve ever heard or read at a TED talk and then make it evil. Drones delivering books and Chinese food? What about private gun-bearing drones on nefarious missions for crime lords? Pretty awesome full-body haptic suits that allow you to feel all the action in MMPGs? That’s nice, but what about getting beaten up while you sit in your room alone in a virtual assault perpetrated by a hacking mugger across the world? 3D printers are cool, right? Guns you can print at home are slightly less cool. Don’t you love Foursquare, Grindr, Tinder and other geotagged apps? But don’t you hate how you’ll be geotagged for victimization and set upon by a flash mob of pickpockets? And yeah, that cloud where we keep all our data. It’s quite nice, that, so asset-light and fluffy! But how about having your entire fucking life swiped from you? That cloud is about to let loose an unholy tempest.
But don’t freak out—not yet, anyway. How much, one wonders, can crime actually change? At its root, the essence of any criminal act has been remarkably constant. At some level, it’s simply violence, man’s constant companion since he reared up on two legs. Ours has been a history of thrubbing and clubbing. Most of it is sanctioned, but a lot of it isn’t. Even when a crime doesn’t seem violent, it is. Disembodied zeros and ones moving from one account to another silently and instantaneously lack the boom-pow-krak of a back-alley dustup. But, it’s a vicious snatch, nonetheless. Nevertheless, it’s a known. Same crime, different technology. As Adam J O’Donnell, a cybersecurity expert with Cisco, told me, “Cybercrime will continue to grow. I do see it become more routine and normalized like any other technology-assisted crime.” But O’Donnell situates this historically, too. “The first drive-by shooting in a gasoline automobile likely caused many furrowed brows at the inclusion of the new technology in the crime, but it became a routine element crime moving forward.” In other words, same crime, different technology.
Your gut needn’t prepare for a midnight shiv. But it won’t matter as much: As we come to rely more and more on technology, bodies will be increasingly irrelevant.
So, yes. You’ll probably be hacked at some point. On the plus side, you’ve likely survived without undue bodily harm being visited upon you by some criminal miscreant so far. Will that change? The short answer: It won’t. Violent crime will continue to drop, and such as it will be, it will still disproportionately affect the poor. So, if you’re one of New York’s estimated 97,000 haves—that’s one per cent of the estimated population in 2030—that’s the good news. Your gut needn’t prepare for a midnight shiv. But the long answer is that won’t matter as much. As we come to rely more and more on technology, that your IRL avatar has escaped unscathed will matter less and less. Bodies will be increasingly irrelevant, anyway. They’ll just be the self-serving late-model junkers in which we convey ourselves through this life.
In the future, in the near future, in the future so close I’ll remember writing this peering into it, we’ll really live our lives almost completely online. As Cisco recently forecast, by 2022, the internet will be worth $14.1 trillion. We’ll keep and spend our lives in the cloud, find love and robot parts there, do our shopping as we do now but more, keep our photos and our memories there. All of our accounts— from Instagram to HSBC and whatever other apps and services that don’t yet exist—will be linked for convenience’s sak, like a spider’s web of personal data. And if the current meh-whatever attitude towards security persists, the keys to our kingdom will be left on the dashboard. Why mug a man when you can just hack him?
A few tables away from me this morning is an adorable two-year-old girl. Her eyes are glued to an iPad as her parents drink lattes. Annoyingly, the thing is on speaker, so I can hear it burrowing into my mind. “Growing up is not so tough / Except when I’ve had enough / But there’s lots of fun stuff.” Fun stuff, indeed, I thought. Someday this kid is going to steal my identity, drain my bank accounts, phish my friends and spend all the money on some synthetic drug that hasn’t even been invented yet. Cynical, I guess, but not far-fetched.
There’s no reason to think we won’t continue our bargain-basement trading of privacy for convenience, of openness for closeness. We used to keep our money in gold under our heads, in our ears and molded into teeth. Then we left behind the gold and turned to paper. Then we turned the paper into plastic. Then plastic became pixels. And at each of those junctures the ease of use was accompanied by an ease of misuse. Counterfeiting was easier than alchemy. Credit card fraud was easier than counterfeiting. Hacking is even easier than fraud. The massive thefts of customer data, most recently at Target, for instance, are just the latest in what will continue to be the exploitation of our desire for comfort.
The problem isn’t that there are mammoth private treasuries in which our data is stored but that these fortresses are about as secure as a White Castle.
Already today, retailers are keeping track of our data not because they know how to use it but because it would be insane not to gather as much information about one’s customers (or citizens) as one can. According to an article in the New York Review of Books, Axciom, the second-largest database-marketing firm, already has 23,000 computer servers that process more than 50 million data transactions a year and tracks 1.1 billion browser cookies, 200 million mobile profiles and an average of 1,500 pieces of data per consumer. And that’s just the second-largest company.
The problem isn’t really that there exist these mammoth private treasuries in which our data is stored but that these fortresses are about as secure as a White Castle. The recent data breaches of Target and Sony Playstation, no less than terrifying stories of personal hacking victims like Wired’s Mat Honan, are ample evidence that the security precautions necessary to keep your data safe are simply too costly or burdensome to be shouldered by private companies. Or that human beings, targets of the so-called social engineering hacks, continue to be the leakiest most easily manipulated leak.
But it’s mostly an issue of allocation. As the Australian historian Peter Cochrane notes, “Cybercrime is estimated to be worth more than 20 times our expenditure on cybersecurity.” Think of it like insurance. Companies are leery of spending inordinate amounts of money on preventive medicine for a disease whose nature is vague and threat, though fatal, is foggy. It will take a lot of sick people before companies realize it is better for them to pay the insurance then to treat the victims.
How do you prevent someone from printing an AK-47 in the comfort of his own home while not invading his privacy?
So that’s the bad news. But the good news is that it’s not only the bad guys who will be innovating technology. A timely parallel that might give one hope is the Olympics. In 1964 at the Winter Games in Innsbruck, Austria, the Austrian Egon Zimmerman won the Men’s downhill alpine skiing event by completing the 1.9 mile course in 2:18.16 seconds. That’s just over 50 miles per hour. At that time, as the New York Times’ Juliet Macur writes, there were no quick releases on skis. Skis were wooden and the course was lined in trees. It was basically just launching down a hill on planks.
Contrast that with this year, when the Norwegian Kjetl Jansrud won gold by completing the 2.2 mile course in 1:53.24. That’s more than 70 miles an hour, 20 miles an hour faster than Zimmerman. If you think of good old Egon zooming at nearly 70 miles an hour in wooden skis without a quick release, in rudimentary boots and a little leather helmet, he’d be an instant dead man. Downhill skiing is already an insane sport, but that would make it suicide by snow.
But of course, when Jansrud competed in February, he was wearing finely tuned state-of-the-art carbon skis, a helmet with a high performance PC/ABS outer shell, a VPD layer with an Aramid penetration barrier as well as an multi-impact EPP liner, down a course lined by mesh netting to catch skiers. No one, not even the athletes, is arguing that downhill skiing isn’t incredibly dangerous. But it would be unfair to say that as skiing has gotten faster it has gotten more dangerous in a direct line. The same technology that has allowed us to speed up, also allows us to protect ourselves better. As it is on the slopes, shall it be in the cities.
The point is, one shouldn’t quite be so freaked out by the vast criminal enterprise of the future without also imagining that the tools to fight crime will also be vastly improved. Already companies are beginning to take seriously the need to replace vulnerable technologies, like the old magnetic stripe, with much more secure versions like the two-fold chip-and-PIN system. Just as criminals might use a victim’s social network to hack into their accounts, so too will police use social networks of suspects to help predict what crimes he or she might commit. Some of the controls are, of course, as embryonic as the technologies whose abuse they are meant to stem. How, for instance, do you prevent someone from printing an AK-47 in the comfort of his own home while, nominally at least, not invading his privacy?
The criminal of the future might not be the pug-nosed square-jawed tough of Dick Tracy or the pale greasy-haired hacker from more recent depictions. Or maybe he will be, who knows? The chances are we will never encounter our assailants, nor will they know us beyond our trail of digits, data and cookie crumbs. The criminals of the future may be faceless, but they’ll exist. For in the future, though they might brandish technology like they did pistols and saps, the villains are men and women with hearts and minds, and wherever ever there are hearts and minds, there will be cold hearts and criminal minds.
Joshua David Steinis the restaurant critic for the New York Observer. He is the former editor-in-chief of BlackBook magazine, senior editor of both Departures and Eater, editor of Black Ink and frequent contributor to publications such as Esquire, TheNew York Times, New York, TheGuardian and others. His password is Robert99. All his accounts are linked.