Crime fighters

A government initiative challenging industry and commerce to produce commercially viable designs that are also intrinsically secure is a welcome move, says Ken Pease.

While engineers well understand the connection between design and accident prevention, especially in cars, the connection between design and crime prevention is less well integrated into their work.

In an attempt to rectify this, home secretary Jacqui Smith launched her Design and Technology Alliance last August. The challenge for industry and commerce is to produce intrinsically secure designs, whether products, buildings or services, that are also aesthetically pleasing, have a high degree of usability, improve customer service and are what consumers want — thereby creating pleasant and safe living and working environments.

Some might argue that using design to close off opportunities for crime will just mean that people commit other crimes, or the same ones in a different way. But this does not stop manufacturers putting safety catches on guns or firewalls on PCs.

When consequences of misuse or malevolence are dire, limiting opportunities is a no-brainer. When (non-poisonous) North Sea gas replaced carbon monoxide-rich manufactured gas, only one means of committing suicide was removed, but the total suicides fell. and when steering column locks were made mandatory in Germany, car theft fell. Numerous similar examples could be cited.

In crime, as in business, there are opportunity makers and opportunity takers. The former should be pursued rigorously through criminal justice. The latter are more easily put off. Many of them are what developmental psychologists call ‘adolescent-limited offenders.’ Getting them to maturity without having done others (and themselves) harm is one of the goals of opportunity reduction.

Engineers already put much effort into security, and any issue of online publications such as Loss Prevention will attest to this. However, the focus is much more on protecting industry and commerce from loss (some companies refer to security as ‘profit protection’). Insofar as security products are offered to the public, they are more often bolt-ons than products in which crime-reductive design is intrinsic. With consumer products and services, there tends to be a rather general sequence. A product is designed with limited attention to its crime-proneness, a crime harvest is suffered and a solution, usually partial, is retro-fitted.

Historically, this is the reason why the Penny Black postage stamp was in use for only a short time before being replaced by the Penny Red. The red franking ink used on the Black was water soluble, and Victorians tended to wash it off and re-use the stamp, whereas the Red was cancelled by permanent black franking ink.

The offence might seem trivial. However, it is obtaining pecuniary advantage by deception. The same sequence is recognisable in many cases since, from the car to the mobile phone. The introduction of the latter, a small, initially pretty uniform, valuable, cloneable piece of electronics with few security features, is a boon to street robbers and drug dealing industries.

Peter Saraga, formerly of Philips and now president of the Institute of Physics, has a long-standing interest in ‘designing out’ crime. His vision involves the collaboration of industry and crime scientists to inspire manufacturers to produce design specifications, which limit crime opportunities. He hopes to demonstrate where, when and how design against crime can be rendered both attractive and desirable, and how it will drive sales through increased consumer value.

I use the acronym VIVA to describe products vulnerable to theft. These are things of high Value, low Inertia, high Visibility and moderate Access. The last because if few people have a new product there is no established market for it once stolen, and if everyone has one, there is less demand unless there is swift change in attractiveness. iPods and mobile phones conform to the VIVA generalisation so it is no surprise they are commonly stolen.

Shaun Whitehead, a design engineer at Loughborough University, has recently worked on an EPSRC-funded project to design out mobile phone theft on and he is working on an EC-funded project on theft of electronic services.

While he has spent recent years trying to redesign existing technology to prevent crime, he is still aware of the needs to ‘design out’ crime for future technology. One example he sees is smart wallets. These offer a potentially secure means of paying for things, he said, but now is the time to really be looking at potential security risks before their widespread introduction.

But there are so many places to start, and no shortage of relevant research by academics such as those in the Jill Dando Institute at University College London. Beyond smart wallets, we must consider the three million new homes that are planned to be built by 2020. While all the talk is about incorporating energy-saving measures into their design, we must also integrate security needs.

The home secretary’s Design Alliance is sensible and timely. The challenge it faces is to harness the relevant engineering and design skills, shaped in line with commercial interests. The hope is that people and their property will be made safe.

Ken Pease is visiting professor at the Jill Dando Institute