The year is 20XX. One day on an obscure programming forum, a user posts a smartphone app that allows the user to pull objects in real world. (Think "Accio" from Harry potter series). This app quickly spreads around and quite a lot of people have it.
And then suddenly, a whole host of those "apps" appear out of nowhere, and some of them have functions that are much less benign than just pulling objects. ("Open a mechanical lock", "Fire a bullet", "Create a fireball")

How would police adapt to presecute criminals that are able to use magic?

EDIT: It is impossible to just "ban" all of those apps. They are installed by magic, are compatible with everything with internet access, and their code is so obfuscated, that nobody have yet managed to understand how the things work.

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    $\begingroup$ The police will use their "catch the crook" app. Otherwise the police will use ordinary police methods to investigate crimes and arrest the crims as per normal. Magic is the only the method to commit a crime, Policing is still policing. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Sep 10, 2017 at 9:12

2 Answers 2


Short, boring answer: Police would work pretty much as it does now.

More elaborate answer: Well, law enforcement will be mostly the same, but here are some ideas and/or options:

  • Tools ain't evil: Assuming the police can get its hands on the app, there is no reason not to use it. Launching a fireball may seem extreme, but opening a lock? Pulling a gun - or another smartphone - away from a criminal hand? Defending an agent from a smartphone-armed man? Those are pretty much all legit uses. Maybe you don't want this in your world, expecially if there is a big "uncertainty" factor about this app; but if magic is very, very powerful, and very widespread, the only option for the police forces will be to answer in kind. Maybe some kind of sister app can developed, to try and prevent the agents from overdoing it or turning evil, and a close eye would be kept on "magicked" smartphones, but this will be surely a thing.

  • The good ol'ways: Just because magic is around, that doesn't mean bullets are no good. It depends on how much and how good your app functionalities are, but consider this: guns are widespread, at least in some countries, yet while all men with a firearm are potentially dangerous, they are not equally so. Training can beat firepower, and agents are probably trained to be agents, unless you are dealing with incompetent police officers. Many courses could come up to better equip the agents and train them to deal with the unexpected; if fireballs are a thing, fireproof vests and a quick "how to help your buddy when is on fire" 101 course will be issued. Meanwhile, a lot of stress will be put on incapacitating someone before he taps something on a screen.

  • Just ban those damned things: Another idea - I don't know how successful - is to try and ban smartphones. Simple as that. Either you allow old-styled phones, who can do nothing but call and message, either you chose an IT company of your choice and force it to develop a new "ultra-locked" phone, in a new programming language, that somewhat resembles modern smartphones but doesn't allow any app that isn't 100% state approved and certified not magical. Think it like a even more restricted App Store. This has drawbacks and may not work (after all, who knows where does the magic app come from and how it gets installed... it's magic!) but it may keep the worst at bay. Also, it opens up the usual "freedom vs security" theme.

  • Informatics is your friend: let's go to prosecution, now. Your magic has to go through your phone OS, right? An well, maybe it leaves traces. Maybe if you have 10 suspects, and 10 smartphones, there is a way to determine who has launched that dreaded fireball. It's called computer forensics but it applies to everything that has code in it - so maybe an expert could go through those phones and analyze logs, memory and battery consumption, traces and whatever. What's more, you could employ some offensive hacking to "lock" the phones of suspected criminals, before you send your agents to apprehend them.

I'm gonna rant some more over the last part, since the edit in the question. Let's give a peek at what can be done with IT forensics. I'll go from the simpler scenario to the harder.

You mentioned that a criminal could delete the app in an instant, but most thing in IT leave traces. Even now your phone may have some memory of your deleted apps. It may be something stupid, like information recorded on your Google Play Store account, something just a little less trivial (like a folder somewhere in your smartphone who gets created when the app runs for the first time) or something kind-of-obscure, like corrupted registry files, strange bytes sequences, unexplicable logs ... the app may be as obfuscated and misterious as you desire, but it still has to run on a smartphone. And smartphones aren't the safest devices in term of privacy or security.

So, my first option is: the app leaves traces. This may vary from application logs to less easy-to-read things. Maybe you'll have to have teams of experts working their night outs before knowing what too look for.

If you want another layer of complexity, the app doesn't leave traces by itself, but somehow has consequence on the phone. Maybe magic and IT doesn't mix so well, or maybe magic has some kind of secondary effect. For example, an expert may notice - through monitoring - that the fireball spell (or in general, using the app) drains a lot of resources from the smartphone hardware. Maybe you could examine a smartphone and determine if and when there has been a spike in its battery consumption. It might be an hidden trace of the infamous app.

But then again, maybe the magical source of the app is also a master in software design. And the app leaves no trace at all, be them primary or secondary. In this scenario, well, your experts have to go into the offensive.

If the app doesn't leave any trace ... you have to add something that will. As part of a mass-protection (or a mass-surveillance) program, the governement, togheter with IT companies and experts, may develop a silent software that once installed into a smartphone, listen carefully for any "unusual" thing happening on the device and records it. You mention the code for your app being particulary obfuscated: that may be used as a signature!

But of course, you can also use more conventional tools. After all, spy softwares are all but a fantasy. Once you are in a phone, you can pretty much record everything, from statistics to messages to any kind of input/output. So audio,video, text, taps on the screen ... As most spy-software do, your hidden program might leave the smartphone open and responsive to remote access, so a team of technicians could always log in remotely and check whatever is happening. If someone gets suspected of using the app with a "cracked" smartphone, there's nothing simpler than checking whatever sort of information the silent app has collected thus far. Let me underline that this kind of thing is considered illegal and liberticidal into most democratic countries, but that doens't stop it from being used and produced.

How can you infect a smartphone with your silent app, tho? Easily done. Your magic app is compatible with anything with an internet access: most spywares travel on the net, too. It's a lucky marriage, really.

  • $\begingroup$ Actually the thing that intersts me most was is forensics. A gun needs to be disposed of, while the app can be just deleted. So how do you get the list of suspects is the question i am most interested in. $\endgroup$ Sep 9, 2017 at 21:34
  • $\begingroup$ I've added some facts about what you requested. Again, took inspiration from current practices of IT forensics and hacking $\endgroup$
    – Liquid
    Sep 9, 2017 at 22:06
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    $\begingroup$ @LuciusQ.User, you'd be surprised how much crap is left behind when any app or program is deleted. Even individual files leave traces until the memory/disk space is overwritten. There's a lot forensics can do with a smart phone... assuming it's worth the cost to investigate. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Sep 9, 2017 at 22:58

I'd like to invite you to broaden your perspective.

Generally speaking, the police would do what they've always done. Magic apps on smartphones are just another murder weapon to them. Yes, a bit more eccletic, but still just a knife or a gun in digital/magical form.

What's really interesting to me is how the law would change. Law (at least in the U.S.) changes very slowly. This is intentional. Basically, it's thought that it's better to be imperfect for a while than to impose a poorly thought through law in the heat of the moment — because laws basically never go away.

So what happens if one of your apps is clarivoyance and that leads to what somebody might call "insider trading?" However, there's no law that admits to the existence of clarivoyance... so what can the police actually do about it?

What about an app that produces good luck? We had a recent question that asked about how casinos would react to sudden good luck. How can the law punish you for good luck? A law would have to be written saying you can't create your own non-random luck using an app — but no such law exists!

How do judges decide cases involving teleportation apps when your neighbor claims you suddenly have the really nice hammer he once owned? What if you use the teleporter to bring home a laptop from your employment that would normally require check-out via security? What if you teleported to Canada, bypassing customs?

So, in my opinion, the interesting question isn't what the police would do — it's what the politicians would do. Especially when they start using the mind-control apps themselves to secure their constituencies. It's a popular belief that strong DUI laws don't exist because the politicians would be subject to them. Same problem, my friend, and a very slow legal process insues!


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