Being burgled for the first time is probably a great prompt for developing a hacker-esque mindset. Which isn’t to say i’d recommend it; as of last night, I’ve been burgled four times in my life, and while it’s markedly less horrible a mental experience each time out, it’s still pretty nasty — even when you’re lucky, as i was this time, and didn’t lose many things or suffer much damage.
The first thing you realise is how easy it is — not just to do, but to get away with. A lot of hackers and pen-test security types make a hobby out of lockpicking, not just because it’s good training for the pen-test mindset (or actual black-hat action), but because it’s a way to remind yourself that there is no lock that cannot be picked, or bypassed somehow. Thence flows the second realisation: that security is as much a social phenomenon as a technical one: the lock (or the password, or the security patrol, whatever) is not there to stop theft, so much as to make theft sufficiently risky or time-consuming that most folk simply won’t bother. The value of the protected goods is the other factor in play; you wouldn’t try cracking Fort Knox for last year’s flatscreen and a few hundred bucks, but for a pallet of bullion? Different story.
The third realisation is that it’s this calculus of risk and reward that allows one to distinguish the professional from the desperate amateur. My guess would be that most home break-ins are not professional jobs, in the sense that they are not done by career burglars; flogging used electronics, average jewellery and other household stuff gets a very poor return for the risk of getting caught, because no fence with sense will pay more than half what they think they can shift it for, which will almost certainly be much less than half the object’s retail value, and furthermore, anything sufficiently valuable to make the return tempting is usually hard to sell on unless you’re nicking to order.
This is how I know last night’s uninvited guests were amateurs. Going on the ratio of mess made (lots) to stuff actually taken (one 22″ TV, which is currently getting a magnesium makeover courtesy of South Yorks CID), it’s clear they were looking for cash or mass-produced consumer goods, because those are easy to move on quickly; they never so much as touched my guitars, for example, despite them being out in plain sight, because they’re a bitch to carry and easy to trace. Plus the musician community has always been pretty good at looking out for one another when it comes to fenced stuff, and the interwebs have only made that easier in recent years. Sure, stuff still walks, and channels exist — but you’d need to know the right people, and the hardware you were taking, to make it worth the hassle.
This may seem contradictory: if they knew what to take, surely they’re not amateurs? And yeah, they know the basics — but so do you, if you think about it. Stay quiet, wear gloves, drop everything and leg it if disturbed; that’s no more a professional approach than not sticking your hand in the flame while cooking on gas. Professionalism is about the long game, not the single exploit; it’s about making one job count, instead of having to take the risk time and again for the sake of a few hundred quid, maximum.
Sadly, even amateurs are hard to catch; without prints or a good visual ID to tie someone to the scene, they’re probably gonna walk. Someone on Twitter last night tried to reassure me that just one DNA sample would be enough to nail the perps, and they were technically right; problem being, CID aren’t going to test for DNA at a household burglary unless they think they’re gonna net someone big, and they know they’re unlikely to net someone big for doing a hiusehold burglary. Amateurs of this sort will usually fuck up at some point and get themselves caught, because they’re too desperate to think far ahead; my guess would be folks with some sort of junk habit. But it’ll take that fuck-up to catch them, because the cops are professionals, and they’re not interested in wasting time and resources on a case that’s not going to stick.
So here’s the fourth realisation, which is pretty innate to anyone with an underclass background, but almost unthinkable to the middle class: the cops aren’t there to prevent crime, because they know (whether consciously or not) that they can’t; they’re there to mop up afterwards. The cops protect capital, the state, and property. Protecting anything that can be picked up and carried (or driven) away is up to you. If this wasn’t the case, there would be no domestic insurance industry. QED. The best way — indeed, probably the only way — to avoid having your stuff stolen is to have nothing worth stealing. (Though of course value is context sensitive, as any homeless person who’s been beaten shitless for the sake of a damp sleeping bag with a broken zip will tell you.)
The other thing being burgled does to a bleeding-heart leftist/anarchist like myself is force them to look to their stated principles. For example, I consider myself a pacifist, but there were a good few hours last night during which I actively fantasised about the opportunity to take a six-cell security Maglite to the knuckles of my visitors. Faced with them in the flesh, I like to think I’d not have done it — I’d probably have been as scared as them, if not more so — but you never know until you’re there in the moment.
But what now of my high-minded reformism, eh? Don’t I want to see someone pay for this crime, see someone suffer in return for my suffering?
In all honesty, no; I retain my belief that the sort of people who do this sort of amateur crime do so precisely because they’ve already suffered. No one embarks on a career of burgling terraced houses in a destitute shithole like Woodhouse because they think there’s a future in it; they do it because they can’t see a future more than a month ahead of them, if that. Poverty will do that to you, as will poor education, an unstable family environment (or no family at all), and a national culture that has reminded you daily, pretty much since birth, that you’re unlikely to ever amount to anything, while also hammering hard on individualism, and the idea that you are what you own.
I’m no utopian; i don’t believe a solid welfare state or mutualist support system would eradicate crime overnight and usher in a peaceable paradise of mutual respect and cooperation. But I do believe that what those things do is give people more options, more choices — and that it really doesn’t take many alternative options to make the option of burgling for chump change look like a bad choice.
Of course, the counterargument is “but fitting better locks and security systems would have the same effect!” And yes, it would — but only for one house at a time. Security technology doesn’t prevent crime; it simply displaces it onto those least able to afford security technology. To address the disease rather than the symptoms requires a social approach.
Maybe you could even call it “social security”.