Scene from Skyfall with Q and Bond

Auto deduction - Has the field agent had his day?

Thanks to rapid advances in forensics, communications and drone technology Bond-style field agents could soon be a thing of the past.

Could Q really accomplish more with a laptop in 10 minutes than James Bond could achieve in the field for an entire year? Does the latest forensic technology mean that modern detectives no longer need powers of observation and deduction like Sherlock Holmes?

This October's Bond film, 'Skyfall', celebrates 50 years of 007 on the big screen, while December sees the 125th anniversary of Conan Doyle's first Sherlock Holmes story. When Holmes took on the murderer in 'A Study in Scarlet', police still relied on witness testimony and maybe a bit of suspect intimidation to make a case. High-frequency radio transmitters and Geiger counters were the must-have technology when Sean Connery took on Dr No in the first Bond film. For a top-secret emergency back then you still had to pick up the red phone.

Today, security services use GPS to track terrorists, aerial drones to monitor insurgents and handheld devices to coordinate investigations. They even use social media to turn entire populations into informants, and use laser microphones to hear through walls.

So, are human qualities obsolete in the fight against crime? Or is technology only as clever as the person operating it?

"Technology can provide information but it still needs a human to work out what to do with that information," says Professor Andrew Blyth, a computer forensics and Internet espionage expert from the University of Glamorgan. "My computer can tell that Fred's bank account was used, how much came out and at what time, but it can't prove that it was Fred who withdrew the money; you need a human to do that."

Ian Fleming based Bond's techology guru Q on Charles Fraser Smith, an engineer who worked for the British government's Ministry of Supply during the Second World War. Smith designed miniature cameras inside cigarette lighters, shaving brushes containing film, a map and saw concealed inside a hairbrush, steel shoelaces that doubled as garrottes or gigli saws and an asbestos-lined pipe for carrying secret documents. Modern day Qs are a bit more high-tech than Smith.

The USA Homeland Security Department's Rolf Dietrich is part of a team that designs gadgets for the US security services. "We have our own Bonds in the field," Dietrich says. "My job is to make their job easier and better with new innovations."

The US government encourages Dietrich's team to try out every conceivable idea, however weird. In the past, they've looked at unmanned aerial vehicles that could detect and deflect shoulder-fired missiles aimed at commercial jets, behaviour-recognition technology and mobile phones fitted with tiny biological, chemical and radiation detectors. They've also considered cameras that would help agents work out whether a figure on the screen coming across the border in the dark of night is an innocent civilian or an armed drug smuggler. Dietrich has even brought in sci-fi writers to look at future security issues.

From bloodhounds to UAVs

"These writers help managers think more broadly about projects, especially about potential reactions and unintended consequences. They have a different way of looking at things," Dietrich says.

In 'Skyfall', Bond activates his gun by palm print. It's the latest in a long-line of weaponised Bond gadgets. Remember the flame-thrower lighter, that rocket-propelled belt, 007's camera rifle and, of course, a gun made especially for blowing up sharks.

Robert Wallace, a former director of the CIA technical service and co-author of 'Spycraft - the secret history of the CIA's spytech', isn't impressed. "Much of the (Bond) equipment has an explosive characteristic," he says. "The world of actual espionage is all about information and communication. James Bond wouldn't last five minutes as an operations officer in the clandestine world."

In his first recorded investigation, 'A Study in Scarlet', Sherlock Holmes puts an advert in the London papers to bring a murderer out into the open. He also uses a gang of street urchins to search for the murderer's getaway cab. In 'The Sign of Four', Holmes again asks the Baker Street Irregulars to scour the Thames for the Aurora steam launch after he'd tracked the villain, Jonathan Small, to the riverside with the help of London's top bloodhound, Toby. There were so many children on the streets of London back then that Holmes believed the Irregulars could move around without being noticed as spies.

Today, CCTV represents all this rolled into one, and modern cameras are no longer simply stuck to walls, easy for criminals to avoid and disable. UK police have been known to use unmanned aerial vehicles to monitor protests, riots and even music festivals. A couple of years ago, Merseyside police used drones similar to those used by the US military to gather intelligence on local gangs. Earlier this year, Kent police signed a deal to develop drones to monitor shipping in the English Channel. SWARM systems has devised a 160g nano-drone that can be controlled by a smartphone.

Drones are higher profile in the US. Security forces use them for border control and for surveillance over cities. In June, pressure group Public Intelligence revealed the location of 64 drone bases in the US. The Federal Aviation Administration thinks there will be 10,000 in US skies by 2017.

UAVs can take stills, video, thermal images and night-vision pictures, but the future of crime detection and espionage is undoubtedly much smaller. DARPA is currently working with the University of Michigan on attaching surveillance equipment to insects. Tiny electronic generators on the bugs' wings capture enough electricity from the creature's movements to power sensors that relay information about its surroundings.

Social scientist James Canton believes that security services will one day use dust-sized nanobots to spy on their rivals. American conspiracy theorist Stewart Swerdlow believes that governments already have this technology, kept secret from the general population in the interests of national security. University of Nebraska scientists recently announced that they had fused bacteria onto a microscopic electric circuit.

Case closed?

In his most famous tale, Holmes hides out on Dartmoor, hoping to catch a glimpse of the mysterious hound of the Baskervilles and its despicable owner. When investigating crime scenes, he uses a sharp eye and an uncanny ability to sift the relevant and the irrelevant. But still, much of the evidence Holmes collects is circumstantial. To get a conviction Holmes has to force a confession or catch his villain in the act.

Modern forensic and communications technology can produce a mountain of evidence. To build a case, investigators must analyse thousands of crime-scene trace samples, look at photographs, CCTV images, computer media and witness reports, and monitor online transactions and phone calls.

Technology is emerging that makes this a less onerous task. The San Francisco Police use an app that uploads images and dictated notes of audio interviews to a handheld device. At the crime scene, an officer can drop map pins to alert fellow officers of locations of note, or get instant recognition from a licence-plate photo. Developers ArcTouch are looking at adding facial-recognition software, although such software is reliant on sourcing quality images of the people in question.

Thousands of satellites orbit the Earth. With half-metre image resolution, analysts can make out enough specific detail from the satellite footage to support an investigation. The American Association for the Advancement of Sciences have been analysing images of alleged human rights abuses from Georgia, Afghanistan and Libya. Individual acts may not be visible, but the telltale signs, destroyed homes, crater shells, mass graves, are. And if human rights organisations are clued in to this technology, there's no doubt that security services will be, too. If they can get away with it, that is.

Case collapsed?

Last January, the US Supreme Court ruled that police who attached a GPS tracking device to a suspected drug dealer's car, acted unconstitutionally. They'd tracked Antoine Jones for 28 days and gathered enough evidence to secure a life sentence. The Court, however, said that without a warrant, this use of GPS breached the Fourth Amendment, as it constituted an unreasonable search.

Scientists in the UK are devising a comprehensive crime detection support system to help security services organise their investigations more efficiently.

Professor Chris Hankin from Imperial College London explains that the various pieces of data are firstly turned into a uniform XML meta-language, with tags attached so officers can quickly identify what is what. The information is then stored in a database and a special algorithm used to extract particular groupings of data. Hankin says: "Someone has still got to collect the data, but this technology will make it quicker and easier to pull information together around themes, to make linkages between different types of data. Before these would have been manual tasks."

This project, Making Sense, is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, a UK government training agency. The research team, experts from several universities, have spoken to psychologists to help them come up with data outputs that fit the way police officers work. They've also consulted lawyers to ensure the evidence they produce will stand up in court.

Hankin envisages senior officers in 'Minority Report'-style control centres coordinating investigations from a wall-mounted multi-media screen. Orders backed with evidence could be sent straight to a field officer's iPhone. "We are working on a flexible delivery mechanism that can be accessed by all the relevant people," he says. "It's a decision support system not a decision-making system."

The human touch

The latest fingerprint technology being developed by the University of Brighton could tell police, not just who was at a crime scene, but also when a suspect was there. "It traces the electrical charge left by a finger or a hand rather than the physical deposits," says Professor Robert Prance, who helped develop the technology. "This electrical charge decays with time, so you can work out how long a print has been there."

Prance explains that the camera scans the print thousands of times to build up a single 2D image. "This is time-consuming," he says. "We have the concept and it works, we just need to develop the technology into a chip so scene of crime officers can take it out into the field. That means investment, further research, but with that, in a couple of years' time we could have something."

Prance believes there's still a place in crime investigation for the good old-fashioned copper's nose. "Technology doesn't cover everything," he says. "You still need local knowledge, psychological profiling and experience of the situations you encounter. The sort of person a criminal wouldn't want to run into is someone who has this and can also use the new tech."

Despite an increase in cyber espionage, where computer programmes hack into top secret databases; sometimes the agent still needs to gain access to information. Andrew Blyth recalls a recent breach that was traced back to a cleaner. "Rivals had discovered that one of the cleaners had a problem and had used that to get the cleaner to act on their behalf," he says.

However impressive the technology, a human still has to make the right decision at the right time. "You still need someone who can piece together all the information," says Blyth. Someone who combines both logic and intuition to give them insights beyond what any computer can come up with."

So, there's still room for Bonds and Holmeses in this high-tech world...

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