Digitalization of our societies powered by the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) offers many benefits and poses many challenges. However, one of the most important benefits often goes unmentioned: Digitalization’s potential to end numerous types of crime. In this blog, I will focus on digitalization introduced due to normal consumer processes, where crime reduction is merely a positive side effect. Out of scope is actual crime-prevention digitalizations such as DNA matching, automatic surveillance using AI and face recognition and improved digital exchange and analysis of global crime data.
1. Digital currencies mean no illegal money transfers
In countries that have efficiently digitized a major part of their financial infrastructure (e.g. many Nordic ones), very few people carry cash. It is safe to assume that a significant part of the cash in use comes either from criminal activities or the black labor market.
The emergence of blockchain and cryptocurrencies shows that digital currencies have some direct benefits for society. Although the next development may be central bank-issued digital currencies (CBDC), the functionality of traceability and programmability demonstrated by the cryptocurrencies will remain for CBDC.
Similar to how the police use mobile phone tracking in their investigations, they may also use CBDC’s traceability to track payments from one person to another. That makes it impossible to conceal payments to, for example, drug dealers and fences.
Not only small fish will struggle; large-scale corruption will also become more difficult to conceal. Not only will it be possible to trace kickback from large public construction projects, it will also be possible to program the digital currency so that the funds allocated to a construction project can only be used for specific purposes and circumstances related to the construction. The ability to track payments will also make it difficult to conduct money-laundering, hide money at tax havens or commit white-collar fraud.
Digital currencies mitigate some of the crime challenges that we have experienced with electronic payments. When we started going cashless in the 1980s and 90s, it resulted in reduced crime, as criminals would still target cash and did not yet have the skills to steal electronic money. That has changed as criminals closed the technology gap and learned, for instance, how to attack online stores. However, digital money’s ability to leave a trace and be programmable will again increase these barriers. The question for the future is then: Will criminals find ways to close the technology skill gap again?
2. Digital identities and signatures prevent forgery and corruption
Government-issued digital identities and signatures for citizens, businesses and government agencies is an emerging digital trend. Digitally leading countries demonstrate that, for instance, hacker attacks on financial institutions are lower in numbers compared to countries without a central digital identity.
Whereas traditional paper documents only require simple Photoshop skills to forge, it is impossible to do so with a digitally signed document. You cannot make changes to digitally signed documents without breaking the signature; you cannot later deny signing the document, and you can make it confidential to prevent unauthorised access.
Corruption will be more difficult when a document is digitally signed via a browser at home or in the office, instead of at a public servant’s desk. In these digital settings, you do not even see the public servants handling your documents; there is no one to bribe.
The World Economic Forum recommends, in “Inclusive Deployment of Blockchain for Supply Chains Part 2 – Trustworthy verification of digital identities,” creating a shared digital Global Trade Identity (GTID) for any business and government agency involved in global trade. GTID addresses the cross-border interactions and will make it impossible to forge international trade documents.
3. No market for stolen items
When everything from light bulbs to cars, washing machines etc. becomes smart and connects to the internet, an important side effect is that no one will be interested in buying stolen items. With find-my-iPhone-like capabilities, the device will inform the owner of its location as soon as it connects to the internet.
In many cases, the owner has programmed it to be used by specific individuals only or within specific geographic areas.
Smart autonomous cars are trackable every second – that means no more car theft. Future smart-tagging of valuable art will prevent robbery and forgery.
The flip side of digitalization; new types of crime
The other side of the coin is the increased potential of surveillance by private companies as well as national and even foreign governments. Without proper legal frameworks in place, a society’s digitalization can have unexpected adverse consequences that will reduce the pace for reaching a crimeless society.
We will see new types of digital crime such as hackers taking control of autonomous vehicles or your smart home, only releasing it after you have paid a ransom. Even more worrying is the prospect of hackers taking control of your implanted medical devices – when will we see the first cyber-murder?
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Digitalization means that most of our lives are in our smartphones, wherefore the black market value of a stolen smartphone will increase. Even if criminals do not get access to the victim’s funds, the value of the personal information on the black market is still significant. The protection of smartphones should be prioritized.
The end of crime
In 2030, digitalization will have brought about a significant reduction in many crimes that plague today’s societies. On top of the traditional digitalization benefits, there will be significant savings from the reduction in crime, e.g. fewer cases at the courts, fewer expenses to lawyers, reduced insurance cost, more efficient public administration without corruption. And the police will be less occupied with traditional crimes. Digitalization will be a most powerful tool for crime-torn countries that aspire to build a more pleasant, peaceful and prosperous society free of many of the types of crime prevalent today.