Published December 18, 2012
The techniques criminologists use to hunt serial killers may help to track terrorists, take control of a biological attack and even manage outbreaks of disease.
More than three decades ago, geographic profiling helped police catch the Yorkshire Ripper, who was jailed in England for murdering 13 women and attempting to murder seven more. After five years terrorizing women, he was apprehended in 1981 and given a life sentence.
Today in the U.S., there are several software programs regularly used by police agencies for geographic profiling, including Rigel, CrimeStat and Dragnet. They identify the most likely “anchor points” of a criminal -- such as their home or girlfriend’s apartment -- a technique that could also be applied to locate those points for a terrorist organization with numerous cells or the release of a biological weapon.
The same techniques help scientists studying sharks, bees and bats to construct profiles of their movements and foraging patterns. That research could also be useful in counterterrorism.
“What do serial killers have in common with great white sharks, invasive species and malaria-transmitting mosquitoes?” asked Mark Stevenson, a University of London researcher. “It sounds like the sort of question Sherlock Holmes might ask his faithful companion. The answer to our riddle is relatively simple — dare I say elementary? They are all traveling from a central location in some kind of predictable pattern.”
An article to be published in the Society of Biology’s magazine The Biologist explores the similarities.
“If we can work out the pattern, it is possible to estimate where they live based on where we know they have been.”
Anthrax and armed killers
Take the classic “Criminal Minds” or “CSI” setup: The team is looking at several victims of a serial killer. The map-covered whiteboard is wheeled out. The team marks each victim’s locations, visualizes his movements, seeks clues.
These patterns are then used to calculate the most likely point of origin -- the serial killer’s home. Research has suggested that this approach is more effective than starting in the center of the murders and searching outward.
A biological attack is the intentional release of a pathogen that have been grown and weaponized for use against humans, plants or animals. But detecting one is difficult, in part because it may go undetected for weeks before symptoms appear.
Once detected, epidemiologists will work to trace the infection back to its source whether it is a person, vector or vehicle, for example.
Now take an outbreak of infectious disease, such as swine flu (H1N1) or West Nile, a threat to global health. Though researchers have learned a great deal about animal movement patterns over the years, it’s not as easy to anticipate the key points of origin -- the breeding sites of virus-bearing mosquitoes.
Geographic profiling may solve the challenge, proving useful in re-evaluating key outbreak case studies. Last year, research published in the International Journal of Health Geographics looked at historical infectious disease outbreaks through this new lens.
In that paper, researchers tested the technique against a classic 1854 study of a cholera outbreak in London, looking at the 321 disease sites and the 13 neighborhood water pumps in the city. Geographic profiling correctly identified the Broad Street pump -- the source of the waterborne disease.
When this study reviewed a malaria outbreak in Cairo, the 139 disease locations were taken and then the researchers ranked the 59 water sources in terms of most likely to be driving the malaria. Seven eventually tested positive for the mosquito vector and, using geographic profiling, all top six had been correctly identified.
Time is a critical factor in controlling outbreaks, so looking across disciplines for methods, like this criminology approach, that could usefully transfer to help locate sources only makes good sense.
Ballet dancer turned defense specialist Allison Barrie has traveled around the world covering the military, terrorism, weapons advancements and life on the front line. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @Allison_Barrie.