One early fall morning, an Oklahoma woman came close to death. Soon after Shannon Haight pulled her car into the company parking lot, a man approached her and asked for directions. The next thing she knew, she was fighting for her life. The man, wanted in another state for rape and kidnapping charges, shoved Haight into his trunk and drove away.
Luckily, Haight was prepared. She had a weapon. Still in the trunk, she reached into her purse and pulled out -- a cell phone?
Thanks to her quick thinking, the frantic woman was able to get help by dialing her boyfriend, who notified 911. Less than an hour after being forced into a strange car, Haight was safe, and the criminal was on his way to prison.
Stories like Haight's are popping up all around the world. Wireless technology isn't just a convenient luxury anymore; it's a powerful tool for preventing crime. People equipped with camera phones can snap pictures of crimes in progress and beam them to the authorities, and witnesses hesitant to call in crime tips can communicate through text messages.
Cell phones aren't the only wireless weapon. Wireless surveillance cameras, GPS systems and Internet networks increasingly are being used by crime-fighting units from Dallas to Denmark.
With the introduction of in-car computers, police officers who used to spend hours filing reports at the station can now write them in a few hours from their patrol cars. One study conducted by a wireless network provider determined that a policeman assisted by a highly connected network equals the output of five police officers without one [source: BearCom].
Pocket-size PDAs allow police officers to send and receive photos, verify IDs and monitor radio calls. Now, when an officer pulls someone over, he can easily input the person's name, license number or photo into the device and receive a report verifying the person's identity within minutes. In-car computers connected to the network offer the same flexibility. Before such technology was available, officers often had to wait days to get any sort of important information, forcing them to release probable criminals.
Find out how photos are fighting crime on the next page.
Wireless Crime-Fighting: Cell Phones, Cameras and GPS
More than half of the 741 million cell phones in the world are equipped with some type of photo capability [source: Reardon]. You're probably well aware of this, having taken countless pictures of you and your friends. Some of these photos do more than just preserve memories; they fight crime. Police in London used cell phone images to find the terrorists behind the 2005 bombings. Elsewhere a man who tried to abduct four teenage girls was arrested a month later when the same girls spotted him and took a picture of his license plate.
Amateur sleuths also can send their digital videos and pictures of crimes in progress to 911 call centers in places like New York City. A new technology allows the sent images to be incorporated directly into the record of the related call. They also can be forwarded to emergency crews on their way to the scene. Linking the images with the specific call makes them easy to find later for use in an investigation.
>Cell phone images work with other wireless weaponry, like surveillance cameras, to capture criminals. Although surveillance cameras themselves are nothing new, wireless ones can be installed where wired ones can't, such as in out-of-the way areas and in moving objects like patrol cars. They also cost less than wired cameras and are easily moved to new locations to follow high-crime areas.
In Dallas, wireless cameras with motorized controls allow officers watching from a remote location to pan around and zoom in and out to look for information that could help to solve a crime. In Baltimore, officers can watch live feeds for suspicious activities, which have enabled them to catch several violent offenders in the act. On the West Coast, Los Angeles police reported a 32 percent reduction in crime after installing wireless cameras [source: Jones]. Video surveillance systems can help to deter crime, monitor suspicious activities, identify license plates and collect evidence.
Some police forces also use global positioning systems, or GPS, in their vehicles. This locator technology can alert 911 dispatchers to which officers might be able to respond to an emergency the quickest, as well as allow those dispatchers to reassure panicky callers who want to know how far away help is. In addition, if an officer ever gets into trouble and can't radio his location back to base, the GPS will broadcast the officer's position, speed of travel and location.
Another wireless technology has even been used on the likes of Martha Stewart. Wireless radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags are often used by police to keep tabs on parolees and people on house arrest. The tags relay a signal that monitors the subject's whereabouts, notifying the police if the subject is entering an area he or she shouldn't.
If your cell phone doesn't have a camera, have no fear, you can text yourself to safety. Find out how text messaging assists investigations next.
Wireless Crime-Fighting: Texting
Text messaging, the favorite pastime of kids everywhere, is becoming a widely accepted way to crack down on crime. Police agencies around the world are encouraging citizens to use text messages to report crimes and send in tips. Not only are text messages more discreet and safer in certain situations like kidnappings or burglaries, but people may be more likely to communicate information to the police using the less personal method of texting, as opposed to calling.
Boston has a program called "Text a Tip" where witnesses can simply text the word "TIP" to a crime hotline. They'll then be prompted to respond to a series of automated messages asking questions about the crime. Numbers are encrypted and blocked to ensure callers' anonymity.
Across the world in China, dozens of cities have similar crime-reporting systems. In 2005, Chinese police were able to track down a kidnapping victim and his two kidnappers after the man sent them a text message stating simply that he had been kidnapped. Another feel-good story happened in the Netherlands in 2007 when police broadcasted a text message to people in an area where a boat had been stolen. A woman nearby glimpsed the missing boat and notified the authorities, who found it and the thief soon after.
Sometimes the police send text messages directly to the criminals themselves. In Amsterdam, police officers fought cell phone theft by bombarding stolen phones with messages saying, "This phone has been stolen. Bring it back to the police." Understandably, these so-called "text-message bombs" seemed to be an effective deterrent. Who wants a phone that keeps telling you it's been stolen?
In the United States, residents in many cities can register to be part of an emergency warning system that will notify them on their cell phone of nearby criminal activities, missing persons or suspects on the run. One of the emergency broadcast systems that people can sign up for is an extension of the country's AMBER (America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response) Alert program, which is used to catch child abductors. Opt-in setups like these usually charge people a small fee whenever they get a message. The Netherlands, however, is testing a government-sponsored alert system that is free to users.
So if someone says their cell phone is a lifesaver, they may just be speaking literally. For more information about wireless crime-fighting methods and to learn how you can opt in to programs like the AMBER Alert, turn to the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
- BBC News. "CCTV goes Wi-Fi to fight crime." May 23, 2004. (May 8, 2008) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/3726335.stm
- BearCom. "Reducing Crime with Wireless Video Surveillance Systems." 2007. (May 8, 2008) http://www.bearcom.com/resource-library/white-papers/White%20 Paper%20BearCom%20Mesh%20Video%20Surveillance.pdf
- CBS News. "Woman Saved By Cell Phone." April 15, 2004. (May 8, 2008) http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/04/14/earlyshow/living/main611812.shtml
- Jackson, Jonathon. "Police tap technology to fight crime, protect officers; GPS, computers in cruisers added to city service's arsenal." The Sun Times. 2008. (May 8, 2008) http://www.owensoundsuntimes.com/ArticleDisplay.aspx?e=998935&auth=JONATHON+JACKSON
- Jones, Dan. "Fighting Crime with WiFi." Unstrung News. March 19, 2007. (May 8, 2008) http://www.unstrung.com/document.asp?doc_id=119729
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- Reardon, Marguerite. "New York to use cell phone photographers to help fight crime." CNET. Jan. 18, 2007. (May 16, 2008) http://www.news.com/2100-1033_3-6151337.html
- Security Products. "DVTel Solution Helps Fight Crime in Baltimore." July 9, 2007. (May 8, 2008) http://www.secprodonline.com/articles/49032/
- Yuan, Li. "Murder, She Texted: Wireless Messaging Used to Fight Crime." The Wall Street Journal. July 2, 2007. (May 8, 2008) http://online.wsj.com/public/article_print/SB118334106678254898.htm