The Victorians lived among poisons.
Poisonous air, poisonous food, poisonous water, poisonous clothes, poisonous cosmetics, even poisonous wallpaper.
With all that toxicity around, it isn’t surprising that when people’s hearts turned to murder, their plans turned to strychnine, cyanide, and, especially, tasteless, hard-to-detect arsenic.
Poison was something of a social equalizer, historian Linda Stratmann points out: “You could fear absolutely anybody, even people who ought to be powerless, like servants or your wife or your children.” In 1851, the British House of Lords debated a bill that would have made it illegal for women to buy arsenic, but settled for adding indigo.
Murder changes through history as the means available to would-be murderers change, explains Jooyoung Lee, a University of Toronto professor who is an expert on gun violence. (Poison homicides are now almost unheard-of.)
“That’s the old story – the story of people taking whatever resources are available to them, that at first seemed benign, and then using them to create weapons that can hurt other people. It’s sort of the way things work.”
What about the murderers of the future? We have some hints in the present. Here are two, and a third kind of erasure that occurred to Lee:
WATCH: Connecticut would become the first U.S. state to allow law enforcement agencies to use drones equipped with deadly weapons if a bill opposed by civil libertarians becomes law. Chris Dignam reports.
1) Drone-mounted firearm attacks
After 9/11, Western militaries turned to sophisticated drones, not only to monitor an area from the sky, but also as a remote-controlled weapon platform hurling missiles launched by an operator thousands of miles away.
The Israeli army recently scaled the concept down, adopting smaller drones mounted with an automatic weapon and a grenade launcher and equipped with a sophisticated balancing system to deal with the weapons’ recoil.
However, videos circulating on YouTube since at least 2013 show it’s possible to create a consumer-grade version.
This anonymous video shows a handgun-style paintball gun mounted on a consumer-grade drone. It successfully shoots a number of human-sized cardboard targets:
Real-life victims presumably wouldn’t stand still to be attacked from the air, However, in this video a drone successfully shoots a human who is running away from it (with paintballs):
Hobbyists shooting each other with paintballs are rather harmless, but it’s a short practical leap to using a real gun.
A Connecticut teenager did just that in 2015, though it’s not clear how accurate it was. It’s clear that recoil from a real firearm would mean that the drone would have to be reoriented after each shot, though not to any great extent.
The same person also mounted a flamethrower on a drone:
Is this something we should expect to see at a real crime scene?
“I hope not. But given what we know that people are capable of, that’s definitely something that we should be worried about,” Lee says.
“The fact that drones enable a person to remotely control something that can fly great distances, sometimes undetected – they’ve already been used in military combat situations. It sounds very frightening, that a person could outfit it with a gun and it could be used to really hurt people.”
2) Fatal vehicle hacking
In March, Wikileaks claimed that CIA documents in its possession showed the agency had lost control of powerful hacking tools it had created.
The tools, mostly designed for surveillance, targeted a range of connected smart devices – TVs, phones, routers.
Worryingly, Wikileaks claimed, the hacking arsenal ” … gives its possessor the entire hacking capacity of the CIA.”
Even more worrying, the targets included motor vehicles; the ability to take over a car, Wikileaks pointed out, also conferred the power to “engage in nearly undetectable assassinations.” If a driver died after his car rammed a highway bridge, it might not ever be clear that someone else was controlling it at the time.
Is a car-hacking homicide practical? It depends who you read.
In 2015, Wired published an account (from the driver’s point of view) of white-hat hackers cutting power to a Jeep Cherokee.
The next year, Chinese researchers successfully hacked a Tesla, remotely activating its brakes.
As cars get smarter and more connected, it seems, they may be forced to obey a will other than the driver’s.
“Given that hackers can hack into our personal data, and that they can hack into federal elections, it definitely seems possible, so that’s also scary.”
A story in Scientific American, on the other hand, said that ” … as scare-tactic journalism goes, it would be hard to beat” Wired‘s story.
The hackers in the Wired story had been working on the problem for more than a year, they pointed out: “No hacker has ever taken remote control of a stranger’s car. It’s extraordinarily difficult to do. It takes teams working full-time to find a way to do it.”
There may come a point in the near future, however, when police will have to ask if a fatal single-vehicle accident might actually have been a murder carried out remotely.
“That’s always been the history of homicide investigations,” Lee says. “Criminals are always innovating new methods, and police and detectives are having to evolve their own methodology to stay abreast of people who are committing crimes.”
“There’s always a little bit of a lag. Investigators are kind of latecomers to this. These things kind of evolve together. Criminals are always sort of one step ahead, and investigators are always sort of trying to catch up to what’s happening.”
3) Murdering the digital self
In this scenario, the person wouldn’t be physically harmed, but sophisticated hackers would erase their digital traces – citizenship data, financial information, birth records, property ownership records.
“It’s not the physical act of killing someone – it’s the digital act of killing someone,” Lee explains.
“That you, yourself as a living person that has a digital trace in the world, could be snuffed out. And that that could cause a number of different problems for you as a person in terms of trying to have citizenship, in terms of trying to prove your identity.”