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Oct 11

Reported by Fabio Bergamin, in ETH Life, 10 October 2013.

Whether a person turns criminal and commits a robbery depends greatly on the socio-economic circumstances in which he lives (staged photograph). (Photo: iStockphoto.com)

More punishment does not necessarily lead to less crime, say researchers at ETH Zurich who have been studying the origins of crime with a computer model. In order to fight crime, more attention should be paid to the social and economic backgrounds that encourage crime.

People have been stealing, betraying others and committing murder for ages. In fact, humans have never succeeded in eradicating crime, although – according to the rational choice theory in economics – this should be possible in principle. The theory states that humans turn criminal if it is worthwhile. Stealing or evading taxes, for instance, pays off if the prospects of unlawful gains outweigh the expected punishment. Therefore, if a state sets the penalties high enough and ensures that lawbreakers are brought to justice, it should be possible to eliminate crime completely. Continue reading »

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Oct 07

Reported by Brandon Keim, in Wired Science, 7 Oct. 2011.

Forensic DNA databases are a potentially powerful law enforcement tool, but may disproportionately target poor and dark-skinned wrongdoers, biotechnologically magnifying flaws in criminal justice systems.

“Forensic DNA databases are growing to mirror racial disparities in arrest practices and incarceration rates,” write sociologists Troy Duster and Peter Chow-White in an Oct. 4 Public Library of Science Medicine essay.

In the last decade, as DNA became the gold standard of forensic evidence, DNA collection by law enforcers became routine. At least 56 countries have a national DNA database. In the United States, the FBI’s database contains 5 million profiles, and DNA is also gathered at state and local levels, where a patchwork of laws govern how it’s collected and managed. Some states gather DNA from anyone arrested for a felony, or use so-called “DNA dragnets” to gather samples from anyone in geographical proximity to a crime. And samples may be kept indefinitely, even if suspects are cleared of charges.

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Feb 15

Reported by Ian Sample, science correspondent in guardian.co.uk, Thursday 30 December 2010.

University refuses to remove from its website a student’s thesis revealing flaw in chip-and-pin security system of bank cards.

The thesis describes a flaw in chip-and-pin technology that allows criminals to use stolen bank cards. Photograph: Alex Segre/Alamy

A powerful bankers’ association has failed in its attempt to censor a student thesis after complaining that it revealed a loophole in bank card security.

The UK Cards Association, which represents major UK banks and building societies, asked Cambridge University to remove the thesis from its website, but the request was met with a blunt refusal.

In a letter to university authorities, UKCA chair Melanie Johnson – a former Labour MP who was economic secretary to the Treasury in Tony Blair’s government – demanded that the masters thesis be “removed from public access immediately”.

The thesis by computer security student Omar Choudary, entitled “The smart card detective: a handheld EMV interceptor”, described a flaw in the chip-and-pin (personal identification number) security system that allows criminals to make fraudulent transactions with a stolen bank card using any pin they care to choose.

“It is the publication of this level of detail which we believe breaches the boundary of responsible disclosure. Essentially, it places in the public domain a blueprint for building a device which purports to exploit a loophole in the security of chip and PIN,” the letter states.

But in a reply to the UKCA, Ross Anderson, professor of security engineering at the university’s Computer Laboratory, refused to take down the thesis and said the loopholes had already been disclosed to bankers.

“You seem to think we might censor a student’s thesis, which is lawful and already in the public domain, simply because a powerful interest finds it inconvenient. This shows a deep misconception of what universities are and how we work. Cambridge is the University of Erasmus, of Newton and of Darwin; censoring writings that offend the powerful is offensive to our deepest values,” Anderson wrote.

Anderson and his colleagues discovered the loophole in chip-and-pin security in October 2009 and told the banks about the flaw later that year. They revealed the loophole publicly on the BBC’s Newsnight programme in February 2010.

In view of the UKCA’s letter, Anderson has authorised Choudary’s thesis to be published as a Computer Laboratory technical report.

“This will make it easier for people to find and cite, and will ensure that its presence on our website is permanent,” his reply to the UKCA states.

“It is outrageous that the banking industry should try to censor a student’s thesis even though it was lawful and already in the public domain,” Anderson told the Guardian.

“It was particularly surprising for its chair, Melanie Johnson, to make this request; as a former MP she must be aware of the Human Rights Act, and as a former Cambridge graduate student she should have a better understanding of this university’s culture.

“Her intervention was completely counterproductive for the banks who employ her: Omar’s thesis will now be read by thousands of people who would otherwise not have heard of it,” he said.

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Nov 13

Reported by Helen Knight 12 November 2010 in NewScientist

Hands off...(Image: Henning Kaiser/AFP/Getty Images)

Call it CSI: Abracadabra. A camera that can make invisible substances reappear as if by magic could allow forensics teams to quickly scan a crime scene for blood stains without tampering with valuable evidence.

The prototype camera, developed by Stephen Morgan, Michael Myrick and colleagues at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, can detect blood stains even when the sample has been diluted to one part per 100.

At present, blood stains are detected using the chemical luminol, which is sprayed around the crime scene and reacts with the iron in any blood present to emit a blue glow that can be seen in the dark. However, luminol is toxic, can dilute blood samples to a level at which DNA is difficult to recover, and can smear blood spatter patterns that forensic experts use to help determine how the victim died. Luminol can also react with substances like bleach, rust, fizzy drink and coffee, causing it to produce false positives.

The camera, in contrast, can distinguish between blood and all four of these substances, and could be used to spot stains that require further chemical analysis without interfering with the sample.

To take an image of a scene, the camera beams pulses of infrared light onto a surface and detects the infrared that is reflected back off it. A transparent, 8-micrometre-thick layer of the protein albumin placed in front of the detector acts as a filter, making a dilute blood stain show up against its surroundings by filtering out wavelengths that aren’t characteristic of blood proteins.

By modifying the chemical used for the filter, it should be possible to detect contrasts between a surface and any type of stain, says Morgan. “With the appropriate filter, it should be possible to detect [sweat and lipids] in fingerprints that are not visible to the naked eye,” he says. “In the same way you could also detect drugs on a surface, or trace explosives.”

Read more in Analytical Chemistry, DOI: 10.1021/ac101107v

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