Why Location-Based Systems Will Have No Effect On Crime

I’ve been watching the reaction to this service that uses the Foursquare API to tell the world when someone isn’t home, with the implication that criminals will be firing up their expensive laptops to go find people to rip off. This is nonsense, and it’s kind of surprising that it’s gotten so much attention. I’m not going to use the tired rationalization “must have been a slow news day,” but I’m thinking it.

I look at this site as a provocative and sensationalist art project (which, to my mind, is one of the best kinds of art project). At the same time, it is an extremely poor commentary on the relative safety of broadcasting your location, and I say this as someone who spent a couple of years reporting the news on a daily cop beat. The city I covered was pretty small and relatively crime-free, so property crime was kind of a big deal. As a result, I wrote stories and police blotter items on property crime frequently. After spending time with the Sergeant of Detectives at the local police station nearly every weekday, I learned a lot about how residential property crimes commonly happen and how the police investigate it.

First (and this is a pedantic point, I realize), it’s impossible for your home to be robbed. Robbery is something that happens to you, not your property; it is legally defined as “theft by force or fear”. If you’re not home, there can be no robbery, by definition. Burglary is what this site is really talking about.

Second, the site doesn’t provide “a list of all those empty homes out there,” as it purports to. It provides a list of check-ins that people have voluntarily made that say they’ve left home. It doesn’t say where “home” is. It also doesn’t say whether there’s someone else at home, or when the person will be back. It also has no way of knowing if the person checking in is telling the truth about any of this.

Third, this project implicitly misrepresents the statistical likelihood of being a victim of a major property crime, which for most Americans is close enough to zero to not be worth worrying about. If the creators of this site were really concerned about peoples’ safety, they’d create a site warning people who were about to get into cars or eat a bunch of transfat, since those things are far more likely to kill you than robbery in our society.

There are generally two kinds of people who break into residences: someone who lives in the neighborhood (a teenager, for example, or a disreputable acquaintance) or someone who is a little off (with substance abuse or mental health issues, for example). In any case, the vast majority of people who do these kinds of property crime are in poverty or close to it. They’re generally not computer whizzes (if they were, they’d probably have a job using their computer skills instead of breaking into houses).

Ultimately, if someone is going to burglarize your house, they either already know your habits (because they live down the block and see you leave the house for work every morning) or they can figure them out pretty easily. There’s a very simple way to see if someone is home or not — sit in a parked car and wait for someone to come out of their house, or pretend to go door to door selling magazines until someone doesn’t answer the door. Both of these techniques are very commonly used by burglars, and neither of them require the investment of a laptop and extensive knowledge of online social systems. These tactics also happen to be easy to defend against (lock your doors).

My solution, of course, to just never leave my house. It’s difficult to find the time to get out with all the time I spend here cleaning my extensive shotgun collection.