Turning Technology Against The London Rioters

By , Columnist

The morning after in Croydon, South London

Like many others in the UK at the moment, I am utterly appalled by the recent violence and criminal behaviour.

Media commentators have made much of how cell phones and other modern technologies were used to orchestrate these events, but it occurs to me that there is another angle that could be explored. Modern technology could be instrumental in locating those involved in the riots, and, what’s more, could be further used to make many of the stolen goods worthless.

Research in Motion (RIM, the manufacturer of BlackBerry devices) has already announced that they are willing to grant the authorities  full access to their records, and this will no doubt provide a ready supply of suspects, as well as potentially greater intelligence in the future.

On a more subtle level, I wonder how many rioters and looters considered that in order for someone’s phone to work it must communicate with local transmitters, and therefore a record of their phone’s position at the time of any trouble could show that they were in the area. Such information is time-consuming to obtain, and almost worthless without further proof of involvement (such as the possession of stolen items), but it would count against any argument that someone was not in the vicinity at the time.

Then we have those people who stole cell phones. Perhaps these were stolen for sale, but I suspect in many cases the theft was for personal use. All phones have their own unique IMEI number (the phone’s serial number), and most retailers will know which items were still in stock before the theft. With that information, networks could simply block those stolen phones from use, just as they currently do with phones stolen in the “normal” way.

Similarly with game consoles, Sony’s stock management systems should record the serial numbers of those consoles that were still in their North London distribution centre when it was raided. I would not be surprised if some of those stolen consoles connect online at some point soon, and when they do Sony will have a choice. They could disable the console remotely as they were planning to do with hacked consoles a while back, or they could log the user’s IP address and report the details to the authorities. With the help of the Internet service provider, it would then be fairly simple to locate the stolen goods and, potentially, another offender.

No discussion such as this could be complete without thinking ahead a little, and one current technology offers interesting possibilities.

RFID tags are already here, and their manufacturers push their potential usefulness for stock control in warehouses and shops. If these tags become more widespread, we may soon see the police being equipped with RFID readers, able to scan the contents of a suspect’s room quickly, and instantly identify any stolen items.

Perhaps these recent events will prove to be the catalyst for advances in anti-theft measures, with methods to deter theft relying less on prevention, and much more on making stolen goods worthless and more easily traceable.

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Steve Clark is the director of an IT support company based in London, UK. A confirmed geek who's been nosing around inside computers for the past three decades, he considers solving puzzles, cracking codes, and improving security protocols to be legitimate ways of having fun.

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