How open data helps to solve Covid-related crimes across Britain

Openly accessible data and intelligence (#OSINT), mostly from the web, may increasingly empower concerned and affected citizens to demask small-scale criminals hooked on Covid-19 related crimes, including dog theft and fly-tipping.

Photo: Dreamstime

ovid-19 lockdown periods have been a boon for crime rates. In some realms of the criminal spectrum, crime decline considerably.

In the UK, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found a 32 per cent reduction in total crime excluding fraud and computer misuse during April and May, last year.

With more people at home, fewer criminals dared to commit burglary during the pandemic — some prudently eschewed risky in-person encounters with homeowners.

However, crime in some categories noticeably increased. One of such areas includes dog theft. Criminal activity flourished as demand for the cuddly four-legged friends mounted.

Criminal gangs prefer steeling puppies as they can often quickly sell them on online to people and their kids, in search of a companion.

Loopholes in British law may have assisted them. UK law permits a grace period of eight weeks after the dog’s birth before it must be fitted a tiny microchip containing the owner’s contact details and an ID number.

Older dogs are stolen and often used for breeding. The trend reached excessive levels during the pandemic year. Various sources cite figures that dog theft jumped between 170 and 250 per cent during the pandemic (such as NGOs and BBC News). High demand drives up prices, a trend that figures by Pets4Homes, a company for trading the animals, further corroborate. High prices made it a thriving business among criminals.

But victims and investigators are not powerless. While the internet often serves crime groups as a platform to sell dogs (including Gumtree and Facebook Marketplace), modern online forensics used by victims, activists, concerned citizens and law enforcement agencies can strike a mighty blow at criminals to rescue the tail wagers.

Online open data-sharing portal DogLost, a UK-based online lost and found dog service, puts pressure on dog thieves, Karen Harding, co-ordinator at Dog Lost says.

“We get involved as soon as we hear that a dog has been stolen . . . we advise on the steps that owners need to take quickly to get their dogs back before they ‘disappear’”, Harding explains.

Back in 2017 a 10-year-old girl, Zoe Picken lost her dog puppy to theft. After her family’s fruitless attempts to comped through the local area of West Bromwich, West Midlands, a friend spotted a picture of the puppy in an ad on the buy-and-sell platform Gumtree (see prices I collected for last week below). Zoe’s mother set a trap and posed as a buyer before sending the police to fetch it back and arrest the seller.

Prices for dogs (including puppies for early July 2021); source: Techjournalism

Police resources are very stretched, Harding says. Victims complain about how police forces fail to show initiative. This makes more and more victims take matters into their own hands and tackle a thriving puppy black market on their own.

For UK criminals at least, the risk [of detection and prosecution] is so low that out-of-town drug sale is even dicier [than dog theft], one British dog thief tells Vice in an interview. The number of dogs stolen across London during lockdown surged notably, MET data suggests.

In 2021, of the 203 dogs stolen (most of them in the London Boroughs of Havering and Enfield), 15% were recovered, local police records say (source: MET)

Basic knowledge in open data and online forensic techniques allows more owners to work alongside initiatives like DogLost, “with organisations such as ourselves, to search for their own dogs with selling websites. These are among the first places searched”, Harding says.

Social media surveillance is also key in the process. Once a dog has been listed on DogLost, the link to their page and poster created is then used to spread the word across the local online community, “and all over Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms”, Harding says. A large percentage of dogs are then ‘let go’ or are returned, handed in to vet offices or rescued once they have become ‘too hot to handle’, she explains.

UK-based NGO Blue Cross advises dog owners to use social media and leak images of the stolen pet into the public domain — adding to the open data pool others, NGOs, police and concerned citizens can tab into to help to connect the dots.

E&T’s own research suggests reward sums also surged during the pandemic. In some cases, victims offer hefty rewards to get their tail-waggers back. In other cases (like below, in Romford Essex) owners post screenshots of CCTV video camera footage on social media, allegedly showing culprits who committed the theft.

If such material is shared, open-source intelligence techniques — such as reverse image search, geolocation, operator search on Google, GumTree or Facebook — all may help to unearth findings the police could more readily follow up on.

Apart from the ethical concerns of self-administered justice (people could be wrongly accused) and data privacy-related concerns, police add that sharing dog images online may also attract theft in the first place.

Senior staff at the National Police Chiefs’ Council’s acquisitive crime unit expressed concern earlier this year that data oversharing of pet owners could feed information to culprits. Det Supt Neil Austin told the reporters he advises to avoid giving criminals an advantage by sharing their location and dog images on social media that they may use against them.

Open data justice for illegal waste disposal

imilar to dog theft, fly-tipping across the UK thrived during lockdown periods. One survey for last April found that 58 per cent of councils experienced a surge in tonnages of collected fly-tipped waste, according to information by the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport.

Part of the reason is that few councils and local authorities take action against fly-tipping, a representative at UK charity ClearWaste thinks, an organisation trying to combat illegal waste disposal.

“What we do know in regards to the pandemic is that there has been a big drop off in actual enforcement of flytipping. Councils almost entirely stopped [acting]”, he adds.

Though fly-tipping was growing even before the pandemic (around 950,000 recorded incidents in the period between 2018 and 2019), Covid-19 added further pressure to the upwards trend amid often closed waste facilities in local authorities during lockdown.

More residents and concerned citizens turned to social media and digital forensics to voice their concerns and allow a constant record for the injustice to linger online. In the fight against illegal waste disposal, a vast network of open source CCTV cameras on and off highways showed how culprits can be caught in the act.

In one recent case, the gun was still smoking after Highways England posted CCTV footage of culprits dumping trash on the M6 motorway.

By collecting some openly accessible information like the British county it took place and the direction the driver was heading, it was relatively easy to pinpoint the exact location where the culprit dumped the waste on March 28.

By searching the 40 miles of motorway that leads through the landlocked county of Staffordshire, it took only minutes to geolocate it with the help of the open-source program Google Earth Pro.

After being handed the case, Central Motorway Police Group (CMPG) intercepted the offending vehicle and escorted the culprits back to the emergency area where they had to tidy up the mess, the government said in a press release.

The government built a large infrastructure, that now often in real-time, presents anyone with the chance to surveil fly-tippers alongside rodes.

A rich network of live-CCTV cameras — including Motorwaycameras.co.uk for across the UK, or for London specifically, via Tfljamcams.net — invites anyone with enough patience and curiosity to monitor drivers.

If they spot anyone flytipping across London, citizens can flag the instance at sites such as Streetcare.tfl.gov.uk. This helps to geolocate the incident and allows councils to follow up on it — if they manage.

A motorway camera that recorded a fly-tipping incident in March, 2021

To keep online records fresh, it also helps that more people are keen to share fly-tipping incidents on social media. These posts often contain detailed descriptions of where rubbish was dumped and sometimes with a clue for who could be responsible (see below).

In the instance below, a British farmer caught fly-tippers in the act and ordered them to clear the scene — but not before filming them and posting it online.

ClearWaste, a charity that aims at helping citizens to report flytipping and find licensed waste removal, built an app to incentive record sharing. A representative explains that ClearWaste’s app has one critical advantage over other fly-tipping data-sharing platforms. It geo-fences the area the person who reports the incident is in and connect to the responsible council management. This may remove barriers.

“Lots of local authorities let you report flytipping but you’ve got to know which local authority area you are in. If you’re in London, how would you know whether you are in Greenwich or in a bordering council”, the representative says.

It also helps with fly-tipping on private land, including on farms. These are areas where few local authorities have the time to bother with. Flytipping on private land may leave matters entirely in the hands of concerned individuals and property owners. This may motivate more to revert to measures such as digital forensics and open data intelligence to become active.

The UK government estimate there are just under a million cases of flytipping every year. “We think it’s about the same number [of incidents] that occurs only on private land”, the ClearWaste representative says.