Measuring the expertise of burglars

Here is a Schneier on Security post in toto, I won’t indent it once again:

New research paper: “New methods for examining expertise in burglars in natural and simulated environments: “preliminary findings“:

Expertise literature in mainstream cognitive psychology is rarely applied to criminal behaviour. Yet, if closely scrutinised, examples of the characteristics of expertise can be identified in many studies examining the cognitive processes of offenders, especially regarding residential burglary. We evaluated two new methodologies that might improve our understanding of cognitive processing in offenders through empirically observing offending behaviour and decision-making in a free-responding environment. We tested hypotheses regarding expertise in burglars in a small, exploratory study observing the behaviour of ‘expert’ offenders (ex-burglars) and novices (students) in a real and in a simulated environment. Both samples undertook a mock burglary in a real house and in a simulated house on a computer. Both environments elicited notably different behaviours between the experts and the novices with experts demonstrating superior skill. This was seen in: more time spent in high value areas; fewer and more valuable items stolen; and more systematic routes taken around the environments. The findings are encouraging and provide support for the development of these observational methods to examine offender cognitive processing and behaviour.

The lead researcher calls this “dysfunctional expertise,” but I disagree. It’s expertise.

Claire Nee, a researcher at the University of Portsmouth in the U.K., has been studying burglary and other crime for over 20 years. Nee says that the low clearance rate means that burglars often remain active, and some will even gain expertise in the crime. As with any job, practice results in skills. “By interviewing burglars over a number of years we’ve discovered that their thought processes become like experts in any field, that is they learn to automatically pick up cues in the environment that signify a successful burglary without even being aware of it. We call it ‘dysfunctional expertise,'” explains Nee.

See also this paper.”

The pointer is from the estimable Chug.


A friend of mine was a brilliant database architect. His brother turned out to be the North Shore Silver Burglar, who finally got arrested after about 1,100 successful break-ins. But there aren't really as many Criminal Masterminds as you would assume from watching TV.

This guy, I presume.

There was a master burglar in the DC area about 30 years ago who committed 1000s of burglaries, was eventually caught because of a parking hassle with a tenant years after he stopped burgling, was sent to a new max security prison in Chicago that was 'escape proof', where he promptly escaped. Master of his sordid craft.

Who is "the estimable Chug"? What a great nom de plume.

People that follow an occupation become better at it over time. Who would have guessed?

My experience is that you need to be burgled only once to forever change your security habits. So we lock stuff in the safe at night like our computers, we have an alarm system and floodlights, we have someone watch the house when we are away and so on. So I would guess that skilled burglars are very good are finding the places of people who haven't been burgled, or at least for a while. Also that there can't be too many of them, because if there were people would be a lot more security conscious.

His careful approach was refined over many years, as he learned from his mistakes. He began to throw away his clothes and shoes after each burglary after police used a shoe print to attribute a New Jersey burglary to Nordahl.[2] He also took increasing care about cleaning up behind himself to avoid leaving footprints or similar marks.[3]

Considering how little most used, 'hot' household goods are really worth, I wouldn't expect burglary to pay all that well. And although the risk of being caught (or confronted by the householders) in a single, well-researched burglary may be small, risks must be high for repeat offenders.

I'd expect burglary to attract a few opportunists (who see a door or window left open, etc.) along with a larger number of not-so-bright criminals who over-estimate the rewards and/or underestimate the risks.

The average bank robbery, which is the highest per incident tangible property crime, nets $5,000. An average burglary nets less than $1,000, but, of course, a skilled burglar can be expected to perform above average.

In Colorado, one of the big innovations from a law enforcement perspective has been to implement DNA testing and other forensic tools usually reserved for homicides. Because repeat burglary is so common, a DNA based catch at just one or two scenes can reduce the burglary rate for an entire neighborhood by 40%-50%.

Why call it "dysfunctional?" Is it dysfunctional in any way?

Probably to appeal to the sources of research funds. If burglars were sponsoring the research, it would be phrased differently.

If burglars were sponsoring the research, they'd be offering free copies to anyone who entered their name, address, ssn, work phone etc. Along with a followup survey, as well as free offers if you enter your friend's names too.

An interesting cinematic treatment of the subject:

How do you measure the expertise of thieves on Wall Street? By millions of dollars per year in salary and compensation.

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