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The NYPD Hopes an Apple AirTag Will Keep the Thieves Away
An increase in car thefts driven by social media trends prompts the NYPD to consider a creative investment in technology. But how will this affect the rational model of crime?
Car thefts have been on the rise in many cities across the United States, and a recent social media trend hasn’t been helping. Known as the Kia Boyz Challenge, thieves have been using a screwdriver and a USB cable to exploit a defect in Hyundai and Kia vehicles, allowing them to start the car without a key. Both Hyundai and Kia have developed theft-deterrent software updates for eligible cars, but New York City recently announced a slightly different approach to deter car thefts.
After falling for nearly two decades, the number of car thefts has increased each year in New York City since 2019. The New York Police Department (NYPD) has had enough. The largest police department in the United States is hoping to deter future motor vehicle theft, particularly those driven by the Kia Boyz trend, by distributing 500 Apple AirTags to help residents track their car if it has been stolen. In order to qualify, residents must have an iPhone to pair with the AirTag and drive an NYC-registered Kia or Hyundai vehicle manufactured between 2011 to 2021 with a turn key start.
The rational model of crime is a popular economic theory to explain why someone might steal a car. It suggests that individuals weigh the expected costs and benefits of their actions before committing a crime. The model acknowledges that there are benefits to stealing a car, which include the thrill of the challenge or the possibility of selling the stolen car.
A rational person weighs those benefits against the likelihood of getting caught and the associated sanction if caught. While the punishment for car theft is more absolute, the likelihood of getting caught is based on probabilities. If the expected benefits outweigh the expected costs, the thief will try to steal the car. This area of economics was heavily influenced by Nobel Laureate Gary Becker who applied economic theories and approaches to areas that had previously only been addressed in sociology, demography, and criminology.
The Kia Boyz Challenge on social media has reduced the costs of stealing a car by making it easier to break into certain car models quickly using relatively simple tools. The trend has also likely increased the benefits for young adults looking for a challenge or who want to participate in a social media trend. With increased benefits and decreased costs, the number of stolen cars has increased tremendously around the country.
While reducing the benefits of crimes is one way to decrease crime, it may be easier to change the perceived cost of cost. The deterrence effect is a key theory in the economics of crime that suggests that increasing the perceived cost of committing a crime can deter individuals from engaging in criminal activities. This includes increasing the likelihood that a criminal will be caught or increasing the severity of punishment.
Hyundai has pushed a safety update to newer car models and offered drivers a window sticker announcing the presence of anti-theft software. For car owners with models that can’t be updated, Hyundai planning to reimburse owners who purchase steering wheel locks. Each move is expected to decrease the likelihood of someone stealing the car by raising the perceived cost associated with the action.
The anti-theft updates, window stickers, and wheel locks are just a few examples of ways that individuals can privately invest in deterring crime, but what can police departments do to deter this sort of crime? The expected cost of crime is based on both the probability of being caught and the punishment associated with a conviction. Many states, including New York, already mandate that car theft be considered a felony, so police departments are left to manipulate the perceived cost of crime by increasing the likelihood that the criminal is apprehended.
The NYPD hopes that by giving away Apple AirTags to Kia and Hyundai owners, they can do just that. Unlike the wheel locks and window stickers, AirTags would be hidden inside the car and wouldn’t be immediately observable to would-be criminals. Placing an AirTag in your car is the 21st-century equivalence of purchasing a LoJack, which has been found to successfully reduce motor vehicle thefts. The NYPD doesn’t have to give every driver an AirTag, but a large enough (and well-publicized) distribution may provide enough spillover benefits to other drivers. Since AirTags aren’t visible to a potential thief, criminals would be less likely to steal cars in general since they can’t be sure which cars are equipped with tracking devices.
The use of technology in deterring crime isn’t new. Police departments around the U.S. have been using license plate readers, gunshot detection systems, and other surveillance technologies in an effort to deter crime. Researchers have found varying effects on crime rates when these technologies have been implemented, but the use of technology in crime prevention raises concerns about privacy, civil liberties, and potential abuse by law enforcement agencies. The use of license plate readers, for example, has been criticized for allowing the police to track the movements of innocent individuals.
The use of this sort of technology can also have social economic benefits. Crime has significant economic costs, including direct costs related to funding police departments, the cost of replacing stolen property or repairing damage, as well as indirect costs such as lost productivity or reduced property values. By reducing crime rates, small investments in technology can help to mitigate larger social costs and improve economic outcomes.
The use of technology in crime prevention is not a panacea. The deterrence effect only works if potential criminals perceive the costs of committing a crime to be greater than the benefits. If the costs of committing a crime don’t rise above the benefits of committing the crime, individuals may still choose to engage in criminal activities.
Furthermore, the effectiveness of each technological advancement depends on the specific context in which it is used. AirTags aren’t completely hidden if the thief also has an iPhone. What grew out of concerns around stalking, Apple alerts iPhone users if an unidentified AirTag is nearby. Therefore, it is important to carefully consider the potential benefits and limitations of technology in crime prevention before investing in these tools as a true policy solution.
The rational model of crime is just one of the ways that economists try to understand criminal behavior and the impact of interventions aimed at reducing it. By incorporating economic thinking into our approach to crime, we can develop more effective and efficient strategies for promoting public safety and lowering costs. As we continue to grapple with issues of crime and justice, it is essential that we draw on the insights and tools of economics to inform our decisions and actions.
There were 1,283 reported cases of motor vehicle theft in New York City in the month of April [New York Police Department]
A single AirTag costs $29 if purchased directly from Apple [Apple]
About 3.8 million Hyundais and 4.5 million Kias are eligible for software updates to deter theft associated with the viral trend [National Highway Traffic Safety Administration]
Based on data from 2019, NYPD had 36,563 law enforcement officers and 16,133 civilian employees [Federal Bureau of Investigation]
In 2021, there were 552,949 motor vehicle theft incidents reported in the United States [Federal Bureau of Investigation]