Tuesday, June 28, 2016

A Burgler's Guide To The City--How a Criminal Sees the World

Not The City, the city, as in the built environment.

From The Guardian, June 24, 2016:

Burglars look at buildings in a different way, seeing lift shafts that can be shimmied up and plasterboard walls to cut through. This playful book is crammed with good anecdotes 
In June 1986, strange mechanical sounds were heard coming from the ground around the vault of the First Interstate Bank in Hollywood. The police and the bank’s own security staff investigated but could find nothing wrong. The noises were dismissed as “just a rat running around inside the walls or something”. But they continued. Sometimes there were temporary power cuts or interruptions to the phone system. One night, the internal muzak system started playing, scaring an employee who was working late. Staff joked that the bank was haunted. But no one was laughing when an employee opened the vault one day and discovered a tunnel drilled through the floor: $172,000 in cash and $2.5m in personal belongings had been stolen.

The three- or four-man team had driven Suzuki quad bikes through West Hollywood’s narrow storm sewer network to access the area from below. Then the gang, who were probably trained in mining, slowly drilled a 30 metre tunnel up into the vault. It was an extraordinarily daring heist, the inspiration for Michael Connelly’s detective novel, The Black Echo (1992). The Hole in the Ground Gang, as it became known, was never caught.

“Their tunnel was fantastic”, a retired FBI agent tells architectural writer Geoff Manaugh. Such devious misuses of the city’s buildings and infrastructure are the focus of this highly original book. Burglary, Manaugh writes, is “topology pursued by other means: a new science of the city, proceeding by way of shortcuts, splices and wormholes”. Burglars don’t see the city we see. They see a network of vulnerabilities to be used for breaking and entering. They see lift shafts that can be shimmied up, thermal cameras that can be disabled with hairspray, and doors that can be easily opened with lockpicks.

They see plasterboard walls that can be cut through in an instant: “like clouds, apartment walls are mostly air”. According to Manaugh, burglars understand the architecture of the city better than anyone. They are the “dark wizards of cities and buildings, unlimited by laws that hold the rest of us in”.

Manaugh begins and ends his “burglar’s guide” with the man who was responsible for “one of the most spatially astonishing crime sprees in US history”. George Leonidas Leslie arrived in New York City in 1869, the year construction began on the Brooklyn Bridge. A trained architect, he was ambitious, charismatic and well-connected: he could have worked for any of the city’s wealthiest clients. Instead he chose to use his training “to rob the place blind”. Before his career was cut short in 1878, when he was murdered by one of his partners in crime, it was estimated that he and his gang were responsible for nearly 80% of bank robberies in the US.

The “preternaturally gifted” Leslie collected “a burglar’s library of architectural documents” and spent months and even years casing targets. He broke into banks just to wander their corridors at night, measuring and timing as he went. Leslie believed “the best way to commune with an architectural space was by breaking into it”. He used this information to build life-size models of targets in a Brooklyn warehouse, “stage sets on which the art of burglary could be rehearsed to perfection”. Having become an underworld architectural consultant, advising criminals on their heists, he was, writes Manaugh, “both burglary’s patron saint and architecture’s fallen angel”.

Leslie exemplifies Manaugh’s argument that “burglary is designed into the city as surely as your morning commute”. To explore this delightfully subversive idea he takes to the skies with the Air Support Division of the LAPD, which operates the largest police helicopter fleet in the world from a building he describes as “a kind of beached warship in the heart of the city”. Always fascinated by new technology, he gazes through the helicopter’s infra-red camera at “the strangely beautiful thermal flare of human life” below, and explains how the latest radar gadget will allow the police to see people deep inside buildings.

There are 900 miles of highway in sprawling LA, which helped to make it the bank robbery capital of the world in the 1990s: “every city blooms with the kinds of crime most appropriate to its form”. In the future, Manaugh suggests, getaways will be engineered by hacking the city: think The Italian Job but with drones used to reprogram the lights at each intersection. Manaugh cites the example of a school boy in Łodz, Poland, who modified his TV remote control and created a superswitch for the city’s tram signalling system.

Having learned that the operating system of New Songdo City, South Korea, is backed up and stored in a secret safe deposit box, he speculates that whoever stole it could perpetrate “the heist of the century” – its owner of the operating system to a smart city would possess the digital key to every electronic door lock, surveillance camera and bank vault. The ultimate master key.

There are some wonderful anecdotes in Manaugh’s book, such as the hapless burglar who phoned the police when he became convinced someone else was robbing the house he was burgling. Another burglar cut his way through the plasterboard walls of an entire Baltimore block: “he was the worm in the apple, eating from one unit to the next”, leaving in his wake “a whorled halo of negative space like a vortex through which household goods would disappear”. And then there was the man who was caught after 10 hours crawling through the air ducts of a veterinary clinic in an attempt to steal tranquillisers. He was naked and armed with a flashlight and hammer, “like some surreal nudist remake of Die Hard”....MORE
I had intended to post on the book when it was published but some disaster or other was striking and I moved on to other things. HT for the reminder to Atlas Obscura who focus on a different part of the topic:
...Stewart also described how museums create choke points and funnels, where corridors and pathways narrow to bottleneck movement, manage circulation, or give security time to corner a fleeing criminal. This same architectural feature can be found in casinos. However, in Nevada, many of the first casinos dotting Las Vegas and Reno were not built with security in mind.

“Instead, security managers now have to find a way to retroactively build choke points into the layout and funnel everybody past high-resolution cameras,” Jason England, a Las Vegas-based magician and authority on casino gambling, told Manaugh, like the oddly placed escalators at the entrance of many casinos. The result “might not be great buildings, in an architectural sense—but they are great at taking pictures of you.”

Manaugh spoke to Darrel Clifton, a well-respected leader in the security world and the head of security at the Circus Circus—a 37-year-old hotel and casino in Reno, Nevada that lacks the kind of ideal architectural design for security. Clifton has to be scrappy. Decorations, furniture, gaming stations, and retail cash registers are all coordinated with camera placement to ensure comprehensive views of a space while blending into the environment as much as possible, Manaugh wrote. 
Circus Circus in Reno has 1,572 hotel rooms and a 65,000 square foot casino all of which needs to be monitored carefully. (Photo: Ken Lund/CC BY-SA 2.0)
Clifton uses landscape architecture to his favor, selecting a particular species of plant called trifoliate orange not for beauty, but for creating a protective barrier—a living fence. The dense, fast-growing thorny plant, commonly referred to as the Rambo bush, can stop speeding vehicles and has even been used to secure U.S. military buildings, such as missile silos and armories.

Convenient modes of transportation inside buildings manage movement, while also providing another opportunity to track people. Escalators in casinos and other buildings serve as an optical apparatus that give security teams an almost 360-degree view of everyone moving through the interior of the building.

“People will dutifully line up one behind the other and most people, especially in the U.S., don’t walk on escalators. They’ll just stand there even if it’s just a 20-foot ride,” Manaugh says. “It gives the security team an extra 20 or 30 seconds to take photographs or video footage from pretty much any side.”
 These escalators at the Circus Circus in Las Vegas (a different casino than the one Clifton operates) give security experts the advantage of scoping out burglars. (Photo: inazakira/CC BY-SA 2.0)
An elevator is even smart enough to catch burglars. Elevators have scales that can calculate the weight and number of people occupying the carriage. At a casino in Reno, a security manager, who is a friend of Manaugh's, told him that an elevator flagged a person that weighed much more than he was supposed to and was caught with hundreds of dollars’ worth of coins hidden in his clothes....MORE