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July 28, 2014

Canada Welcomes Crimebusting Supercomputer

Tiffany Trader
crime scene fingerprint

Airports, casinos and numerous federal agencies rely on powerful computers to identify and track suspicious actors, but most police departments have to make due with desktop machines and basic databases to capture the bad guys. Soon, however, law enforcement officials in Canada will be able to target criminal enterprises in new ways, thanks to the power of big data and supercomputing.

A new supercomputing lab set up by the criminology department at Simon Fraser University will analyze crime data in order to help researchers and the police understand the intricacies of complex criminal networks. The resource will be directed to two main areas: urban crime and maritime security.

Due to the nature of this undertaking, the supercomputer lab will be built in a secure environment in a locked cage in an underground building at the university and will not be connected to the Internet or any outside computers for that matter.

The computer will be hooked up to databases of crime data provided by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and other police forces. Because the focus of this activity is on big picture patterns, not individual surveillance, the names of criminals will be replaced with numbers. Only those with a RCMP security clearance will be allowed to enter the computer room.

Using powerful computers to analyze criminal activity is “absolutely unique at a research institution in Canada and very unusual in other parts of the world,” computer scientist Uwe Glässer tells the Vancouver Sun. Glässer is collaborating with SFU criminologists Patricia Brantingham and Martin Andresen to set up and manage the lab.

Brantingham explains that just as in sciences like cosmology and genomics, there are complex, predictable patterns in criminology, such as the geographical pathways that make up criminal networks. The supercomputer will enable police to optimize what are increasingly limited resources by highlighting criminal trends and pinpointing geographical hotspots.

Brantingham is on the vanguard of the new sciences of computational criminology and environmental criminology, which involve understanding societal networks in order to predict and prevent criminal activity both on land and at sea. Having criminal data and a more powerful computer will be critical to expanding the usefulness of this groundbreaking approach.

The SFU criminologist emphasizes that this is theoretical, big picture work. While these models and simulations are expected to help guide public policy and policing efforts, the computer does not tell police how to do their jobs.