Rise of Computer-Cop

The fires of Britain’s worst riots for a generation were still smouldering when the first images of the suspects began appearing. In the next few hours hundreds more were released across the nation on police websites and the photosharing site Flickr, which is viewed by millions.

In an instant the long arm of the law extended even further. The thugs who brought terror to our streets and thought they’d got away with it discovered there was no hiding place.

Technology and the very social networking sites which the rioters used to arrange the looting are being utilised against them.

In the past this type of operation, involving rounding up thousands of suspects, would have taken weeks but for many involved in the recent riots justice has been virtually instant. Already more than 3,000 suspects have been arrested.

There’s no substitute for flooding cities with officers to prevent trouble but remote policing is also playing a major role. In the past few days we’ve seen that officers armed with keyboards can be as effective as those with truncheons.

CCTV cameras have been around for decades but gone are the days when they produced grainy pictures or weren’t even loaded with film. Today’s versions serve up pin-sharp images around the clock.

What’s more the CCTV network is increasing all the time. Police say there are about 1.8 million cameras dotted around the UK recording every one of us about 70 times a day. Civil rights groups claim the figure is as high as 300 in central London.

In fact Britain has more of them than any other country in europe. That might upset privacy campaigners but it’s giving police a major weapon in the fight against street crime.

In London alone about 500 officers involved in Operation Withern, the codename for the investigation into the riots in the capital, are said to be sifting through 20,000 hours of CCTV footage.

One benefit of having so many images is that it allows police to use a tactic called “back-tracking”, involving following a suspect as he moves around different locations.

Not only does it allow officers to track rioters but by studying images taken over a period of time, a suspect who pulls a hood or mask over his face to commit a crime is often seen with his face uncovered.

A version of this technique helped catch the London nail bomber. Police found fragments of a holdall at one of the blast scenes and sifted through images to look for suspects carrying a bag in the build-up to the attacks.

Security industry sources say the latest cameras use technology developed for filming sports events which are capable of tracking a brand logo on clothing.

Graeme Gerrard, deputy chief constable of Cheshire Police and the Association of Chief Police Officers’ CCTV expert, adds: “The technology we have gets better all the time. Many cameras now produce broadcast standard digital images and have much more storage capacity than in the past. CCTV has shown its value time and time again, including after the recent disorder.”

In BIRMINGhAM digital photographs of the rioters have been posted on a police van with a built-in giant screen and scores of images of rioters were released on the BBC’s Crimewatch earlier this week as the relentless pursuit continued.

In one of the most remarkable uses of technology a victim whose laptop was stolen relied on a tracking device to monitor the thief.

Greg Martin, a Texan, activated it following the raid on his girlfriend’s flat in London.

Despite flying abroad on a business trip the 29-year-old was able to pinpoint the location of his stolen computer and even watch on its webcam via his mobile phone as the thief surfed the net.

Eventually the suspect logged on to his own Facebook site, immediately giving away his identity, which Mr Martin passed to police.

“When this guy’s face popped up in front of me it was the most incredible feeling,” says Mr Martin. “Fortunately I’ve spent my entire career in computer security. I was able to put in a pass- word and basically stalk the thief. I got the guy on a silver platter.”

Computers are driving electronic policing by replacing laborious paper- work, allowing officers to store and process information much more quickly and creating virtual crime scenes. Most forces now have e-forensics teams.

Many rioters believed they could loot with impunity because police were ini- tially thin on the ground. After helping themselves from shops some posted images of themselves with their loot on Facebook and other sites.

Hundreds of people on Twitter also posted pictures of a burning police car and evidence of looting, with many encouraging others to join in.

However in the aftermath popular sites were being monitored by detectives and hundreds of alleged culprits soon received an unwelcome knock on their door.

Technology allows officers to search social networking sites and messages for keywords, such as “riot”, and areas in their policing districts.

Two men who tried to organise riots using Facebook were caught in Ches ire. Jordan Blackshaw, 20, from Northwich, and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan, 22, of Warrington, were each sentenced to four years at Chester crown court after admitting using the social networking site to try to raise a mob.

It’s believed that MI5, which routinely monitors the internet for terrorist activity, has been involved in the operation to hunt down rioters helping to explain its success.

One mystery is how police have apparently been able to intercept messages sent from BlackBerry devices, which are supposedly encrypted and untraceable.

These phones have become popular among gang members who can send messages to scores of people simultaneously.

The National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA), founded four years ago, is leading the way in technology support for forces.

It also trains detectives how to gather information from laptops, mobiles, satnavs, loyalty cards, PlayStations and other devices.

Voicemails, texts, stored lists of contacts and records of calls made and received can all help track criminals. During the riots it’s thought confiscated devices were a rich source of intelligence.

Andy Kay, the NPIA’s head of investigative skills, says: “Smartphones, for example, are mobile computers on which people store information about their whole lives including addresses, social websites, business details and photographs which may show the time and location where they were taken. Police forces have to be aware of changing technol- ogy and it’s a battle to keep pace.”

The organisation has also helped pioneer the introduction of mobile fingerprinting devices, now used by 28 police forces.

Within two minutes these hand-held gadgets allow officers to scan a person’s fingerprints while on the beat and check them against the national fingerprint database, IDENT1.

Another breakthrough is the use of roadside cameras capable of automatically identifying specific number plates on stolen cars, or vehicles believed to have been involved in a crime.

It takes five seconds to send an alert to the nearest police patrol and the system, Automatic Number Plate Recognition, continues to track suspicious vehicles each time they pass another camera.

All these devices are cutting the time taken to catch crooks.

We will always need police on the streets but in the 21st century, as rioters are finding, there’s no doubt Big Brother is doing his bit to bring criminals to justice.

—Written by Adrian Lee, Express.co.uk
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