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Bringing technology into crime-solving
Devangshu Datta
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January 06, 2007
Can you drag an 18th century society kicking and screaming into the 21st century through the simple induction of technology? Only if the legal and socio-economic framework is also overhauled to utilise the technology and to account for the changes caused by technological induction.

Otherwise, you get a mixture of good, bad and terrible outcomes. India has country-wide GSM networks, satellite TV, great IT and ITES enabling companies and an advanced automobile industry, among other technological pluses. The country is in a transition from an agrarian society to one driven by services -- this started two decades ago and it's ongoing.

There's been a clear shift of population from rural roots to urban clusters in search of work and a better quality of life. That trend has accelerated due to the service industry take-off. There's also been a shift of population from low-growth states to places with better employment prospects since growth is uneven across a continent-sized economy.

This has created a large migrant population and led to the withering of the old joint family system where the vast majority of people lived and died within 10 miles of their place of birth. The nuclear family is now the urban norm, and the single parent is a far more common species than even five years ago.

At the same time, the legal system hasn't been overhauled since the Sepoy Mutiny -- and we will be commemorating the 150th anniversary of that event this year though it'll be official referred to as the "First War of Indian Independence". It isn't just that the IPC incorporates absurdities such as provisions to prosecute male homosexuals (though not lesbians) and those who attempt suicide. The policing system hasn't really changed in 150 years.

The police aren't capable of tracking the transient, mobile populations that typify post-industrial societies. The legal system assumes that everyone still lives in a family cocoon at a fixed residence; the reality is that a large proportion of urban dwellers live alone in places, far removed from their place of origin.

As a result of this 150-year rigidity, the police have no means of tracing people who go missing or simply change residence. There is no official statewide, let along nationwide, network where missing-persons alerts and information can be posted.

Could such a network be created? I would suspect so -- IT-enabling is supposed to provide solutions to this sort of problems. Such a system can be both open and closed -- certain sections could be accessed from anywhere by anyone, while sensitive data can only be seen or posted by password-enabled users.

Check out the American criminal justice tracking systems as examples. Anybody can surf the Wanted lists and Missing lists and e-mail or post relevant information on these parameters. In addition, unique identifiers such as PAN numbers, credit-card use, ATM use, mobile roaming records, etc, can be used to locate people on the move. Indeed, the Indian police do these things -- but they do them in a random, haphazard fashion.

A lot of Indian companies earn their bread, butter and jam designing solutions for precisely these problems -- only their clients reside abroad. It would require the application of imagination for an apex agency such as the Home Ministry to set such a nationwide IT-enabling project in motion.

The Noida serial killings may provide the incentive. Serial killers crop up everywhere and they are unusually difficult to find because there is no normal motive. According to some estimates, there are approximately 250-300 serial killers at large at any given time across the continental US, which has a population of roughly 30 crore.

But given a high-tech, modern policing system, serial-killing patterns are identified much earlier. You don't have a two-year lag between the first missing person reports and the realisation that there is something wrong. There are a lot of homeless people on the streets of Indian cities. How many die unreported at the hands of serial killers?

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