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August 02 2012

Thieves steal Derby Museum artefacts worth £53,000

Police say hoard of items, including 18th- and 19th-century watches, were taken from depot between 2 May and 19 June

A collection of coins, medals and watches worth £53,000 has been stolen from a museum's storage facility. The 1,000 artefacts from the Derby Museum and Art Gallery's city-based storage site were stolen some time between 2 May and 19 June, Derbyshire police said. None of the items have been found.

Among the hoard is a collection of about 20 18th- and 19th-century gold and silver watches worth up to £3,000 each. These includes examples made by clockmaker and scientist John Whitehurst, who was a member of the Midlands' based Lunar Society, and a contemporary of famous Derby artist Joseph Wright.

Coins dating back more than 800 years have also been stolen, as well as more modern coins from the early 20th century. The items were locked away and only used for exhibitions and special viewings.

A spokeswoman for Derbyshire police said museum staff had worked on the collection recently, but the thefts came to light only when another museum made a request to borrow some of the items.

The theft was recorded with the Metropolitan police arts crime unit as well as the Arts Council England security advisory service in the hope that the thief would try to sell them.

Meanwhile, additional security measures and procedures have been put in place at the storage facility.

Investigating officer Detective Constable Dee Hornblower said: "There has been no sign of a break-in at the premises, so the possibility that this was carried out with inside knowledge has at this stage not been ruled out. We have circulated details of the stolen items to every police force in the country in the hope that they can be traced."

Derby city council cabinet member for leisure and culture Martin Repton said: "Our ultimate fear is that some of these items which are of a relative low monetary value could potentially be discarded by the culprit or culprits, meaning that they would be lost for ever with little chance of recovery.

"We are therefore also appealing to members of the public who may have any information to contact Derbyshire police."

Anyone with information about the incident, or the whereabouts of the stolen items, should call police on 101 or Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800-555 111.


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July 22 2012

Two men charged with theft of Henry Moore sundial sculpture

Liam Hughes, 22, and Jason Parker, 19, accused of taking artwork, worth up to £500,00, from artist's former home in Hertforshire

Two men have been charged with the theft of a sculpture taken from the former home of British artist Henry Moore.

Hertfordshire police said Liam Hughes, 22, and 19-year-old Jason Parker had both been charged with stealing the sundial sculpture and a bronze plinth.

The sundial, created by Moore in 1965 as a working model for a larger sculpture, was taken from the grounds of the Henry Moore Foundation in Much Hadham, Hertfordshire, overnight between 10 and 11 July.

Said to be worth up to £500,000, the distinctive artwork was found at an undisclosed location after a televised appeal for information last Thursday.

Hughes and Parker, both of Coltsfield, Stansted, Essex, have been bailed to appear before magistrates in Stevenage on 3 August. A third man, aged 22 and also from Stansted, has been released without charge.


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April 17 2012

Letters: The web's new world order

The British people fought wars and went through a great deal of civil strife to construct the form of democracy we currently have. Thus there is nothing wrong with our government seeking to ensure that within its national boundaries activity in cyberspace conforms with its laws. The alternative proposition, that the law of the internet is coterminous with the decisions of the US supreme court, is unacceptable everywhere except the US.

The internet of course is magical and wonderful. But we should not have to put up with all the bad stuff in order to benefit from the good. By failing to deal with significant levels of online crime, I'm afraid the high priests of the internet industry, of whom Sergey Brin is most certainly one, have created the situation of which he and they now complain (Web freedom under threat – Google founder, 16 April). It may not be too late to halt or reverse some of the processes Brin is anxious about, but time is running out and laissez-faire will not cut it.
John Carr
London

• I recently replaced a defunct mobile phone and, a week in, find that the new phone's default settings included backing up "application data, Wi-Fi passwords and other settings to Google servers". Is Mr Brin a suitably qualified glasshouse stone-thrower, or does the above sit uncomfortably with Google's previous sniffing for Wi-Fi networks while making photographic surveys?

Internet freedom must rely upon a sea of small providers rather than disproportionate control by nations or global corporations. I will be looking to remove other Google services from my phone.
Mike Brown
Newcastle upon Tyne

• "Internet freedom" is just a vehicle for transnational corporations such as Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook to impose their ideology of rightwing libertarianism on the world – strident capitalism, no taxes, no government, no community. They are a threat in the same way as Murdoch has proved to be, but for some reason we talk about them as if they were the post office or the library.
Dr Stephen Dorril
University of Huddersfield

• Ai Weiwei's comments on the power of the internet to achieve freedom (China's censorship can never defeat the internet, 16 April) remind me strongly of the prescience of your former Communist affairs correspondent Victor Zorza (died 1996). I recall the characteristic enthusiasm with which he told me, almost certainly as far back as the 1970s, that he was convinced that fledgling information technology would prove to be a death knell for totalitarian regimes. As your other articles demonstrate, however, this is not quite so straightforward a matter, given the partially successful attempts at censorship in today's authoritarian countries. But the general conclusion still holds, as Ai Weiwei suggests. Once the monopoly of information slips out of the hands of the rulers of such countries, political consequences are bound to follow sooner or later.
Peter Roland
Bognor Regis, West Sussex

• Russia's alarming restrictions on internet freedom, including the imprisonment of pro-democracy bloggers (Nervous Kremlin seeks to take back control, 16 April), are inconsistent with its membership of the UN Human Rights Council. When he first became president in 1999, Vladimir Putin promised to defend freedom of speech. When he returns to the post next month, Putin would do well to honour his word – and that of his country.
Hillel C Neuer
Executive director, UN Watch, Geneva

• Re your editorial (14 April), New South Wales police have set up a social media community engagement project called Eyewatch. Each of our 80 local area commands has a Facebook page. Each day, police publish local crime issues and crime prevention tips. We are now formulating neighbourhood watch closed Facebook groups across the state so communities can be in touch with police whenever they want to. Our pages have attracted 93,000 fans and over 30m page impressions. Crime is being solved; communities and police are working together to identify problems and create community solutions. This programme – applying the Peelian principles to the 21st century – could be easily adopted in the UK.
Chief Inspector Josh Maxwell
Manager, Project Eyewatch


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April 11 2012

Specialist criminals stole £2m Chinese artefacts from university, say police

Thieves who took 18th-century bowl and sculpture from Durham museum probably only in building two minutes, says detective

Police have revealed more details of a highly targeted theft of Chinese antiquities worth £2m from Durham University's Oriental Museum.

Specialist criminals who knew exactly what they were after were probably in and out of the well-secured building in less than two minutes, said the detective leading the inquiry.

They are thought to have spent 40 minutes beforehand surreptitiously making a hole in an outside wall of the museum. The gang used specialist tools to lever out bricks and make a 3ft by 2ft hole to squeeze through, before seizing an 18th-century jade bowl and a Dehua porcelain sculpture, almost certainly to order. Overseas buyers with very deep pockets, including some in China where the artworks were originally created, have created a thriving market for such items.

The pieces were taken from the ground-floor Malcolm MacDonald gallery at 10.40pm last Thursday.

The university has been the victim of high-profile theft before, when its Shakespeare first folio was stolen in 1998 and later criminally obtained by local antiques dealer and eccentric Raymond Scott.

The book was recovered, slightly damaged, and Scott was jailed. He was found dead in prison earlier this year.

Police have arrested five people from the West Midlands for questioning about the theft of the Chinese pieces but have not yet recovered either of the stolen artefacts. Both date from the 18th-century period of the Qing dynasty, China's last ruling family.

The large green bowl carved with writhing dragons dates from 1769 and has a Chinese poem written inside, while the sculpture is of seven fairies in a boat, beautifully crafted in translucent porcelain with a creamy glaze and standing about 30cm (12in) high. The bowl was obtained in China by Sir Charles Hardinge, a diplomat in the early 20th century who was noted for his early admiration for Gandhi. Hardinge also collected pottery and precious stones.

Detective Superintendent Adrian Green of Durham police said: "It seems very clear that this was a well planned, highly organised break-in. They have spent around 40 minutes creating a hole in an outside wall and, when it has been big enough, they have entered the gallery and made straight for these two items.

"I am sure this job has been planned for quite some time and I would think the artefacts have been stolen to order, for someone who has already identified a potential market."

One of the people arrested, a 27-year-old man from Walsall, was questioned at a police station in County Durham on suspicion of assisting an offender, and has been released on police bail until June. The other four, a 34-year-old woman and three men aged 56, 41 and 36, were released on bail until June after being questioned in Durham on suspicion of conspiracy to commit burglary.

The museum's curator, Dr Craig Barclay, said after the theft: "We are extremely upset to have fallen victim to such a serious crime. The two pieces are highly significant in that they are fine examples of artefacts from the Qing dynasty in the mediums of porcelain and hard stone.

"We very much hope that police will be able to recover them and we urge anybody who may have any information about their whereabouts to contact the police immediately."

The museum was closed over Easter, usually a busy period, because of the theft.


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March 29 2012

Four short links: 29 March 2012

  1. Tricorder Project -- open sourced designs for a tricorder, released as part of the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize. (via Slashdot)
  2. Microsoft's New Open Sourced Stacks (Miguel de Icaza) -- not just open sourced (some of the code had been under MS Permissive License before, now it's Apache) but developed in public with git: ASP.NET MVC, ASP.NET Web API, ASP.NET Web Pages v2. The Azure SDK is also on github.
  3. In An Internet Age, Crime is Essential to Freedom (Donald Clark) -- when a criminal asks: "How do I secure payment and store my ill-gotten gains", somewhere else, a refugee asks: "How can I send funds back to a relative such that they can’t be traced to me".
  4. NSA: China Behind RSA Attacks (Information Week) -- I can argue both sides about whether government cloud services are a boon or a curse for remote information thieves. Looking forward to seeing how it plays out.

March 26 2012

Grow a sunflower to solve unfinished Alan Turing experiment

Manchester Science Festival sows the seeds of a very bright idea to honour the computer genius in his centenary year

If ever there was a man for bright ideas, it was Alan Turing, and he would have loved this.

The whole of Manchester is being invited to plant sunflowers as part of the current centenary celebrations of his birth; and not just as a sentimental gesture.

Fittingly in the tradition of the great computer scientist, whose vital role in World War II's Enigma code-cracking was over-shadowed by his public disgrace for having gay sex, the event is practical and scientific. The Museum of Science and Industry and partners, including Manchester University where Turing made extraordinary strides in computer development after the war, are trying to conclude an experiment which he left unfinished.

Fascinated by numerical sequences and geometric patterns, Turing speculated that both the petals and densely-packed seedheads of sunflowers include striking examples of the Fibonacci number series – a mathematical phenomenon which is explained much more clearly than I could ever manage on this link here. When he was prosecuted in 1952, humiliated and put on a primitive course of hormone treatment, or chemical castration, this project joined many others in gathering dust.

Here's the sequence: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89…. Can you work out the next number?

Although he had been awarded an OBE, the significance of Turing's wartime work was unknown to his colleagues at Manchester university or the public at large. His death in 1954 from cyanide poisoning has been widely assumed to have been suicide although this was never officially confirmed.

His interest in Fibonacci numbers in sunflowers, and other plants, stemmed in part from his own observations and partly from his knowledge of the history of science. The excellent Turing Centenary website has a lovely drawing of him by his mother, opting out of a hockey match at school and in the words of her pencilled caption: 'watching the daisies grow.' Most daisies have 34, 55 or 89 petals – the 9th, 10th, and 11th numbers in the Fibonacci series.

Turing knew about Leonardo da Vinci's interest in the subject and acknowledged the work of a Dutch scientist, J C Schoute, who studied the patterns on 319 sunflower heads just before the Second World War. That was cited in a paper Turing wrote in 1951 about patterns and sequences in biology which he also enjoyed testing on his fledgling computers.

Then it all ended. So the Turing Sunflower Project is taking it up, with a database which will be thousands strong. Professor Jonathan Swinton, visiting professor in computational systems at Oxford University, says that the numerology could be important to understanding how plants grow. He says:

Other scientists believe that Turing's explanation of why this happens in sunflowers is along the right lines but we need to test this out on a big dataset, so the more people who can grow sunflowers, the more robust the experiment.


The project's manager Erinma Ochu says:

We hope to provide the missing evidence to test Turing's little-known theories about Fibonacci numbers in sunflowers. It would be a fitting celebration of the work of Alan Turing.


The results of the experiment will be a highlight of Manchester Science Festival in October. Details on how to register for seeds are here. Tweets on progress are here, and a blog on the festival, sunflowers included, is here.


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March 22 2012

Victim of LS Lowry paintings robbery relieved after handlers jailed

Ivan Aird, a fine art dealer and Lowry collector, endured a knife being held to his young daughter's throat during robbery

The victim of a harrowing robbery during which gang members held a knife to his young daughter's throat has spoken of his relief after two men were jailed for handling stolen LS Lowry paintings.

Ivan Aird, a fine art dealer and Lowry collector, told the Guardian: "This has brought closure to something that has been going on and on and on. It has made me and my family ill for nearly five years. Now we want to get on with our lives."

Kevin Marlow, 29, and Gerard Starkey, aged 50, both from Bootle, pleaded guilty to handling stolen goods. Marlow received six-and-a-half years after also pleading guilty to possession of Class A drugs with intent to supply. Starkey was handed three years and three months.

Sentencing, Judge Graham Morrow QC said there was no suggestion any of the defendants in the case were behind the robbery of the artworks

The case at Liverpool crown court followed the earlier trial of Casey Miller from Denton in Greater Manchester. The 23-year-old was given an indefinite jail term in March 2009 after being convicted of robbery in an "audacious and well-planned" raid on Aird's Cheshire home. Of the four men who took part in the actual theft of the paintings, worth £1.7m, three are still at large.

The nightmare for Aird and his family began early on the morning of 3 May 2007. A man posing as a postman knocked on the Aird family's door in Cheadle Hulme. When Louise Aird, who was carrying the couple's two-year-old daughter Sabrina in her arms, opened the door, she was confronted by Miller brandishing a 10-inch knife. Three other men followed him into the house.

"They tied me up with a cable and had a knife in my back," Aird, 46, said. "They said they would slit my throat. Then they said they would kill the baby if we moved, that's what they kept saying. They took everything out of the bottom half of the house."

The stolen works by Lowry included The Viaduct, a £700,000 painting that had once belonged to Sir Alec Guinness. Another was Tanker Entering the Tyne. A pallette and brush set used by the artist were also taken as well as a series of pencil drawings. In total, the gang made off with 14 pieces of art.

Aird thought he would never see the paintings again. But an investigation by officers from the North West Regional Organised Crime Unit (Titan), Greater Manchester police and Merseyside police into the drugs trade and the theft of high-value paintings led to the recovery of the Lowrys at addresses in Halewood and Bootle in July 2011. At one of the properties, officers discovered around 10kg of amphetamine paste with a street value of about £100,000 and around 100,000 ecstasy tablets with a street value of approximately £300,000.

Lowry was a friend of Aird's father after the two men met at Salford Art Gallery. "Mr Lowry used to come to my mum and dad's every Saturday," said Aird. "He used to drop off to sleep on the sofa. He was always making jokes. I remember the first time I went to his house, there were cobwebs everywhere. He told me he would put a bowl of milk out for all the spiders and that would get rid of them. I believed that for years."

The Aird family's friendship with Lowry instilled a love of his artwork in Aird. His business specialises in Lowry paintings and, until the robbery, he hung a personal collection at home. He no longer has any artwork of value at his house. Instead, a number are on display at the Lowry Centre in Salford.

Detective Superintendent Jason Hudson from Titan said: "We were delighted to be able to return these precious paintings to the victim. They were in a poor state of repair when they were recovered and are in need of restoration so it is very fortunate that we were able to locate them before they were irreparably damaged."

Malcolm Shield, aged 41, from Halewood, who has admitted possession of Class A and B drugs with intent to supply and handling stolen goods will be sentenced next month.


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March 17 2012

Profile of the Data Journalist: The Homicide Watch

Around the globe, the bond between data and journalism is growing stronger. In an age of big data, the growing importance of data journalism lies in the ability of its practitioners to provide context, clarity and, perhaps most important, find truth in the expanding amount of digital content in the world. In that context, data journalism has profound importance for society.

To learn more about the people who are doing this work and, in some cases, building the newsroom stack for the 21st century, I conducted in-person and email interviews during the 2012 NICAR Conference and published a series of data journalist profiles here at Radar.

Chris Amico (@eyeseast) is a journalist and web developer based in Washington, DC, where he works on NPR's State Impact project, building a platform for local reporters covering issues in their states. Laura Norton Amico (@LauraNorton) is the editor of Homicide Watch (@HomicideWatch), an online community news platform in Washington, D.C. that aspires to cover every homicide in the District of Columbia. And yes, the similar names aren't a coincidence: the Amicos were married in 2010.

Since Homicide Watch launched in 2009, it's been earning praise and interest from around the digital world, including a profile by the Nieman Lab at Harvard University that asked whether a local blog "could fill the gaps of DC's homicide coverage. Notably, Homicide Watch has turned up a number of unreported murders.

In the process, the site has also highlighted an important emerging set of data that other digital editors should consider: using inbound search engine analytics for reporting. As Steve Myers reported for the Poynter Institute, Homicide Watch used clues in site search queries to ID a homicide victim. We'll see if the Knight Foundation think this idea has legs: the husband and wife team have applied for a Knight News Challenge grant to build a tooklit for real-time investigative reporting from site analytics.

The Amico's success with the site - which saw big growth in 2011 -- offers an important case study into why organizing beats may well hold similar importance as investigative projects. It also will be a case study with respect to sustainability and business models for the "new news,"as Homicide Watch looks to license its platform to news outlets across the country.

Below, I've embedded a presentation on Homicide Watch from the January 2012 meeting of the Online News Association. Our interview follows.

Watch live streaming video from onlinenewsassociation at livestream.com

Where do you work now? What is a day in your life like?

Laura: I work full time right now for Homicide Watch, a database driven beat publishing platform for covering homicides. Our flagship site is in DC, and I’m the editor and primary reporter on that site as well as running business operations for the brand.

My typical days start with reporting. First, news checks, and maybe posting some quick posts on anything that’s happened overnight. After that, it’s usually off to court to attend hearings and trials, get documents, reporting stuff. I usually have to to-do list for the day that includes business meetings, scheduling freelancers, mapping out long-term projects, doing interviews about the site, managing our accounting, dealing with awards applications, blogging about the start-up data journalism life on my personal blog and for ONA at journalists.org, guest teaching the occasional journalism class, and meeting deadlines for freelance stories. The work day never really ends; I’m online keeping an eye on things until I go to bed.

Chris: I work for NPR, on the State Impact project, where I build news apps and tools for journalists. With Homicide Watch, I work in short bursts, usually an hour before dinner and a few hours after. I’m a night owl, so if I let myself, I’ll work until 1 or 2 a.m., just hacking at small bugs on the site. I keep a long list of little things I can fix, so I can dip into the codebase, fix something and deploy it, then do something else. Big features, like tracking case outcomes, tend to come from weekend code sprints.

How did you get started in data journalism? Did you get any special degrees or certificates?

Laura: Homicide Watch DC was my first data project. I’ve learned everything I know now from conceiving of the site, managing it as Chris built it, and from working on it. Homicide Watch DC started as a spreadsheet. Our start-up kit for newsrooms starting Homicide Watch sites still includes filling out a spreadsheet. The best lesson I learned when I was starting out was to find out what all the pieces are and learn how to manage them in the simplest way possible.

Chris: My first job was covering local schools in southern California, and data kept creeping into my beat. I liked having firm answers to tough questions, so I made sure I knew, for example, how many graduates at a given high school met the minimum requirements for college. California just has this wealth of education data available, and when I started asking questions of the data, I got stories that were way more interesting.

I lived in Dalian, China for a while. I helped start a local news site with two other expats (Alex Bowman and Rick Martin). We put everything we knew about the city -- restaurant reviews, blog posts, photos from Flickr -- into one big database and mapped it all. It was this awakening moment when suddenly we had this resource where all the information we had was interlinked. When I came back to California, I sat down with a book on Python and Django and started teaching myself to code. I spent a year freelancing in the Bay Area, writing for newspapers by day, learning Python by night. Then the NewsHour hired me.

Did you have any mentors? Who? What were the most important resources they shared with you?

Laura: Chris really coached me through the complexities of data journalism when we were creating the site. He taught me that data questions are editorial questions. When I realized that data could be discussed as an editorial approach, it opened the crime beat up. I learned to ask questions of the information I was gathering in a new way.

Chris: My education has been really informal. I worked with a great reporter at my first job, Bob Wilson, who is a great interviewer of both people and spreadsheets. At NewsHour, I worked with Dante Chinni on Patchwork Nation, who taught me about reporting around a central organizing principle. Since I’ve started coding, I’ve ended up in this great little community of programmer-journalists where people bound ideas around and help each other out.

What does your personal data journalism "stack" look like? What tools could you not live without?

Laura: The site itself and its database which I report to and from, WordPress, Wordpress analytics, Google Analytics, Google Calendar, Twitter, Facebook, Storify, Document Cloud, VINElink, and DC Superior Court’s online case lookup.

Chris: Since I write more Python than prose these days, I spend most of my time in a text editor (usually TextMate) on a MacBook Pro. I try not to do anything with git.

What data journalism project are you the most proud of working on or creating?

Laura: Homicide Watch is the best thing I’ve ever done. It’s not just about the data, and it’s not just about the journalism, but it’s about meeting a community need in an innovative way. I stared thinking about a Homicide Watchtype site when I was trying to follow a few local cases shortly after moving to DC. It was nearly impossible to find news sources for the information. I did find that family and friends of victims and suspects were posting newsy updates in unusual places -- online obituaries and Facebook memorial pages, for example. I thought a lot about how a news product could fit the expressed need for news, information, and a way for the community to stay in touch about cases.

The data part developed very naturally out of that. The earliest description of the site was “everything a reporter would have in their notebook or on their desk while covering a murder case from start to finish.” That’s still one of the guiding principals of the site, but it’s also meant that organizing that information is super important. What good is making court dates public if you’re not doing it on a calendar, for example.

We started, like I said, with a spreadsheet that listed everything we knew: victim name, age, race, gender, method of death, place of death, link to obituary, photo, suspect name, age, race, gender, case status, incarceration status, detective name, age, race, gender, phone number, judge assigned to case, attorneys connected to the case, co-defendants, connections to other murder cases.

And those are just the basics. Any reporter covering a murder case, crime to conviction, should have that information. What Homicide Watch does is organize it, make as much of it public as we can, and then report from it. It’s led to some pretty cool work, from developing a method to discover news tips in analytics, to simply building news packages that accomplish more than anyone else can.

Chris: Homicide Watch is really the project I wanted to build for years. It’s data-driven beat reporting, where the platform and the editorial direction are tightly coupled. In a lot of ways, it’s what I had in mind when I was writing about frameworks for reporting.

The site is built to be a crime reporter’s toolkit. It’s built around the way Laura works, based on our conversations over the dinner table for the first six months of the site’s existence. Building it meant understanding the legal system, doing reporting and modeling reality in ways I hadn’t done before, and that was a challenge on both the technical and editorial side.

Where do you turn to keep your skills updated or learn new things?

Laura: Assigning myself new projects and tasks is the best way for me to learn; it forces me to find solutions for what I want to do. I’m not great at seeking out resources on my own, but I keep a close eye on Twitter for what others are doing, saying about it, and reading.

Chris: Part of my usual morning news reading is a run through a bunch of programming blogs. I try to get exposed to technologies that have no immediate use to me, just so it keeps me thinking about other ways to approach a problem and to see what other problems people are trying to solve.

I spend a lot of time trying to reverse-engineer other people’s projects, too. Whenever someone launches a new news app, I’ll try to find the data behind it, take a dive through the source code if it’s available and generally see if I can reconstruct how it came together.

Why are data journalism and "news apps" important, in the context of the contemporary digital environment for information?

Laura: Working on Homicide Watch has taught me that news is about so much more than “stories.” If you think about a typical crime brief, for example, there’s a lot of information in there, starting with the "who-what-where-when." Once that brief is filed and published, though, all of that information disappears.

Working with news apps gives us the ability to harness that information and reuse/repackage it. It’s about slicing our reporting in as many ways as possible in order to make the most of it. On Homicide Watch, that means maintaining a database and creating features like victims’ and suspects’ pages. Those features help regroup, refocus, and curate the reporting into evergreen resources that benefit both reporters and the community.

Chris: Spend some time with your site analytics. You’ll find that there’s no one thing your audience wants. There isn’t even really one audience. Lots of people want lots of different things at different times, or at least different views of the information you have.

One of our design goals with Homicide Watch is “never hit a dead end.” A user may come in looking for information about a certain case, then decide she’s curious about a related issue, then wonder which cases are closed. We want users to be able to explore what we’ve gathered and to be able to answer their own questions. Stories are part of that, but stories are data, too.

December 21 2011

Public art: is there any way to beat the thieves?

The theft of a £500,000 Barbara Hepworth sculpture from Dulwich Park shows how vulnerable public art works are to determined thieves

How do we stop thieves from making off with our public art works? The question arises from this week's disappearance of a Barbara Hepworth sculpture, Two Forms (Divided Circle), from its plinth in south London's Dulwich Park. The sculpture, which had resided safely in the park since 1970, is believed to have been stolen by scrap-metal thieves, who will only manage to realise a tiny fraction of its value (around £500,000).

There are thousands of public works like Hepworth's in parks, gardens and town squares all round the country. Many curators are understandably reluctant to discuss the security measures they currently have in place. But Stephen Feeke, a curator at the New Art Centre, a gallery and sculpture park in Wiltshire, says flood-lighting is a good way to deter thieves and vandals. "You've also got to look at securely gating and fencing the perimeter of a park," he adds. "The important thing is to block access for vehicles: a bronze sculpture is far too heavy to carry off without a car."

Paul Ekblom, of the Design Against Crime Research Centre at London's Central Saint Martins, warns against the kneejerk imposition of fortifications. "We need to look at introducing security measures to new sculptures – for instance, using forensic coding that might allow the metal to be traced. It's also important to make it clear that these thefts are totally unacceptable: our artists and culture ministers need to stand up and say: 'Shame on you.'"


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Sherlock Holmes is still a man for today

Conan Doyle's detective was born in an age of empire and intrigue, much like our own. That's why Sherlock is still relevant

Sherlock Holmes is back. As usual. This Christmas holiday, the engaging modern-times Sherlock returns to the BBC while a second Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes film tops the UK box office. But these are just the latest in an inexhaustible sequence of Holmes adaptations.

It is no secret that Sherlock Holmes is one of the world's best-loved fictional characters (and the one people find hardest to accept as fiction rather than fact). But why was late-Victorian Britain so good at inventing timeless heroes and villains?

Holmes, who first appeared in 1887 in Arthur Conan Doyle's novel A Study in Scarlet, is the contemporary of some other extraordinary gentlemen. In 1886 Robert Louis Stevenson published The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; in 1897, Bram Stoker was to give the world Dracula. Other famous fictions of the age include H Rider Haggard's She and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

Modern horror, crime fiction, adventure stories and science fiction all originate in Britain in the period 1880-1914. In fact, this is Britain's greatest contribution to modern culture. While the French gave birth to the avant garde, we were seeding the 20th-century popular imagination. But what set off these rich fantasies?

It surely has something to do with the British empire. The heyday of Holmes is the era of imperial zenith. Britain was the centre of the biggest empire in history, and troubling shadows of this power permeated the domestic imagination. Readers at home in gaslit parlours turned from newspaper reports on the latest colonial war to fantastic stories in which poisonous snakes obtained overseas invade the quiet of English life. The exotic is eerie and uncanny in these stories. The web of world trade and structure of military might on which the wealth of Britain rests brings with it hidden networks of crime and intrigue.

Just as the Danish TV crime serial The Killing 2 unravels a plot in which the war in Afghanistan has uncanny effects deep in Danish minds, so Sherlock Holmes detects the buried truths of the British empire. We still live in the world that empire shaped. This is why Sherlock is our contemporary.


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December 19 2011

Big crime meets big data

Marc Goodman (@futurecrimes) is a former Los Angeles police officer who started that department's first Internet crime unit in the mid-1990s. After two decades spent working with Interpol, the United Nations, and NATO, Goodman founded the Future Crimes Institute to track how criminals use technology.

Malicious types of software, like viruses, worms, and trojans, are the main tools used to harvest personal data. Cyber criminals also use social engineering techniques, such as phishing emails populated with data gleaned from social networks, to trick people into providing further details. In the interview below, Goodman outlines some of the other ways organized criminals and terrorists are harnessing data for nefarious ends.

What motivates data criminals?

Marc GoodmanMarc Goodman: Anything that would motivate someone to join a startup would motivate a criminal. They want money, shares in the business, a challenge. They don't want a 9-to-5 environment. They also want the respect of their peers. They have an us-against-them attitude; they're highly innovative and adaptive, and they never take the head-on approach. They always find clever and imaginative ways to go about something that a good person would never have considered.

What type of personal data is most valuable to criminals?

Marc Goodman: The best value is a bank account takeover. A standard credit card might cost a criminal only $10, but for $700 they could buy details of a bank account with $50,000 in it, money that could be stolen in just one transaction.

European credit cards tend to cost more than American credit cards since Europeans are much better at guarding their data. There's also a universal identifier for Americans — the social security number — but the same thing doesn't exist from a pan-European perspective.

How is data crime more scalable than traditional crime?

Marc Goodman: Data crime can be scripted and automated. If you were to take a gun or a knife and stand on a street corner, there are only so many people you can rob. You have to do the crime, run away from the scene, worry about the police, etc. You can't walk into Wembley Stadium with a gun and say, "Everybody, put your hands up," but you can do the equivalent from a cyber-crime perspective.

One of the reasons why cyber crime thrives is that it's totally international whereas law enforcement is totally national. Now, the person attacking you can be sitting in New York or Tokyo or Botswana. The ability to conduct business without getting on a plane is an awesome advantage for international organized crime.

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How has cyber crime evolved?

Marc Goodman: In the 1970s, you had to be a clever hacker and create your own scripts. Now all of that stuff can be bought off the shelf. You can buy a package of crimeware and put in the email addresses or the domain that you want to attack via a nice user interface. It's really plug-and-play criminality.

You claim that the 2008 Mumbai attackers used real-time data gathering from social networks and other media. How do terrorists use data?

Marc Goodman: Since the Internet arrived, terrorists have been advertising, doing PR, recruiting, and fundraising, all online. But this was the first time that we had seen terrorists use technology to the full extent that this group did during the incident. They had mobile phones and satellite phones. The terrorist war room they set up to monitor the media and feed back information in real time to the attackers was a really significant innovation.

They re-engineered the attack mid-incident to kill more people. They were constantly looking for new hostages. Organizations like the BBC and CNN were tweeting to ask people on the ground in Mumbai to contact a producer. People trapped in hotels called the TV stations. All of that information was being tracked by the terrorist war room. There was an Indian minister who was doing a live interview on the Indian Broadcast Network (IBN) while hiding in the kitchen of the ballroom of the Taj Mahal hotel. The war room picked this up and directed the attackers to that part of the hotel where they could find the minister.

What can be done to combat cyber crime?

Marc Goodman: The terrorism problem is very different from the cyber crime problem. Most terrorism tends to have a basis in the real world whereas cyber crime tends to be purely online. Governments are pretty good at tracking the terrorists in their own countries, and there is decent international cooperation on terrorism.

What is making things more difficult for governments is that, in the old days, if you tapped somebody's home phone, you had a good picture of what was going on. Now you don't know where to look. Are they communicating on Facebook, on Twitter, or having a meeting in World of Warcraft?

Law enforcement needs to develop better systems to deal with the madness of social media in terrorist attacks. The public is getting involved in ways that are, frankly, unhealthy. There was a hostage situation in the U.S. a couple of months ago where a man took a hostage and was sexually assaulting her. He was trapped in a hotel room with guns and was posting live on Facebook and Twitter. Then the public started to interact with the hostage-taker, tweeting things like, "You wouldn't kill her. You are not brave enough to do it." In the past, police could close off several blocks, put up yellow crime scene tape, close the airspace over the scene, and bring in a trained negotiator. How does law enforcement intervene when there can be a completely disintermediated conversation between the criminal or terrorist and the general public?


Marc Goodman discussed the business of illegal data at Strata New York 2011. His full presentation is available in the following video:

This interview was edited and condensed.

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November 27 2011

Fraudsters target art and antiques world

Traders snared in a conmen's scam are pursued with demands to pay huge sums for an advertising listing

Thousands of art and antiques dealers, fair organisers and auction houses have been targeted in a global extortion scam that involves victims being subjected to months – and even years – of threatening demands for money.

Unsuspecting British and foreign traders have been conned by what appear to be bona fide forms – either sent by email or posted – merely purporting to check whether their business details in a "free" international trade listing guide are correct. Only after sending off the form do victims discover that the small print commits them to paying thousands of pounds for placing an "advertising order" in the guide.

Those who are caught out are pursued relentlessly, enduring intimidating threats by letters or phone calls to pay up or face prosecution and debt collectors.

The art trade is not alone. Great numbers of people from other business sectors have been conned. The European Commission is now so alarmed that it has launched an investigation, calling for evidence to be submitted by 16 December.

Ivan Macquisten, editor of industry newspaper the Antiques Trade Gazette, which was itself targeted by the scam last week – told the Observer about the fear experienced by victims: "It has affected, personally, thousands of lives. It is a huge problem, but one that lots of people have never heard of."

The fraudsters trade under different company names in different countries and, if the authorities catch up with them, they pop up again somewhere else. Many victims do not realise there is no legal basis for paying or are reluctant to incur legal advice, and are embarrassed into silence. Most recently, the art trade has been targeted by companies apparently based in Spain and Mexico.

The victims include Ian Butchoff, a dealer in antique furniture in London. "I wouldn't think there's anybody in the trade who hasn't been targeted at one time or another. How many people have paid is another matter," he said.

The form that he received looked "very official", he said. It was followed by a letter "confirming" his annual €700 (£600) payment, which he was advised to ignore by a solicitor friend because the company, based in Austria, had no jurisdiction under English law. "But they kept harassing me … with official-looking solicitors' letters from Switzerland, which were very menacing. They eventually went away."

His wife, who has a framing business, was also targeted and paid up "because they were threatening her", Butchoff said. When the conmen came back for more money, she refused, and eventually they went away.

Butchoff said: "I still get letters … from different companies. Now they're asking for €12-13,000 a year."

Macquisten has put together a huge dossier of evidence. "Thousands of people have been targeted … and that's just in our industry," he said.

"It is a global problem involving huge sums of money. They are banking on enough people being scared into paying."


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October 16 2011

If you want to distinguish art's hoaxes from its frauds, ask a metadadaist | Tim Williams

The motives guiding the likes of Nat Tate and Rrose Sélavy diverge fundamentally from those of the sinister Pietro Psaier

For some time I've been contemplating the difference between hoax and fraud, and I've yet to establish solid parameters for which to define either, which is problematic. I remember as a 15-year-old watching the first broadcast of Peter Jackson's Forgotten Silver on New Zealand television and being completely taken in (having few critical faculties at such a tender age) – as was a large percentage of the country's population, one viewer even writing to the New Zealand Listener claiming to have discovered a historical link to the mocumentary's protagonist, the fictional film pioneer Colin McKenzie. Of course there have been many similar hoaxes, the Orson Welles War of the Worlds radio broadcast springs to mind, and recently William Boyd discussed his invented artist Nat Tate. We might deem these "celebrated hoaxes", as sometimes it's entertaining for the perpetrator, the victim and the observer, but not always.

I suppose one could claim a distinction between hoax and fraud as the subversion of systems and institutions v deceit for financial (even emotional) gain — though I'm not even certain the two can be separated so distinctly. The agenda and vehicle of a hoax often take the form of parody and satire.

In January 2006 a friend and I exchanged a number of amusing emails that resulted in the invention of a new art movement we called metadadaism. Intended as affectionate satire on contemporary art, at the core of metadadaism was a fictional exhibition titled Nothing — an empty art gallery.

We added metadadaism to Wikipedia, where it remained for a number of years unchallenged, additionally picked up by various other encyclopaedic websites. To our amusement, later that year an exhibition titled Gallery Space Recall – an empty gallery – took place at the Chapel Arts Centre in Wales. Although I may fantasise about it being the first metadadaist exhibition, any concrete link is surely spurious: an empty gallery was obvious evolution for the art world.

Of course William Boyd was not the first to invent an artist complete with biography and art works – there are hundreds of examples, the motives of which could perhaps be deemed as pseudonym, alter ego, propaganda, satire, homage, fraud and others. Many artists were and are tied to exclusivity agreements with art galleries and sign works with a pseudonym in order to earn extra revenue on the side; others have used pseudonyms to create distinction between their primary "creative" artworks and those that pandered to say a "tourist" market.

Marcel Duchamp used alter ego in the guises of R. Mutt and Rrose Sélavy for purposes of subversion, humour and critique. I'm unsure what the motives were for the Spanish/Mexican writer Max Aub who invented Jusep Torres Campalans, perhaps a number of the above, but the fictitious artist is in most cases allied to a celebrated master (Campalans was associated with Picasso) as well as historic events (Colin McKenzie at Gallipoli and the Spanish civil war); by these associations the fictitious artist is seeded in reality and gains kudos.

One invented artist I'm certain falls into the category of fraud is Pietro Psaier. Apparently Psaier lived some kind of global traveller's existence; according to various biographies he originated in Italy, later living in Spain, the US and lastly Sri Lanka, where he "died" in the tsunami. Psaier conveniently collaborated with famed artists such as Andy Warhol, Mel Ramos, Rupert Jasen Smith, John Lennon, hobnobbed with celebrities, and must have spent a fortune lugging around the thousands of artworks he never exhibited, as well as all the essential printing equipment.

Psaier artworks started appearing on the market in the late 1990s and have been sold at every major UK auction house, most provincial auction rooms, and others across the globe. Not just a few either: by my estimation approximately 5,000 Psaier works have been sold in the past 10 or so years, ranging in price from £50 to £14,000 – easily well over a million pounds' worth.

You could view Psaier as altar ego, in the same way as Aub's Campalans or Boyd's Tate, but the absence of an "in joke", or indeed any joke or agenda apart from intent to defraud monies by deception, is for me a vital distinction. As with Forgotten Silver and Tate, people have claimed to have known Psaier, including Uri Geller (who later backtracked) as well as the Madrid-based psychiatrist Carlos Langelaan Alvarez.

At least six Psaier works were marketed as collaborations with Mel Ramos – these works were copies of Ramos works and signed with both artists' signatures. Ramos himself told me they were (and I quote) "knock-offs" and that he'd never heard of Psaier. As yet there have been no investigations and the work still appears regularly in auction houses. (Don't even get me started on the ethics of some auctioneers.)

The naivety of the art world is oft exposed and curiously celebrated, with hoaxers and fraudsters gaining the celebrated status of the anti-hero, perceptively beating the establishment at its own game. I can take pleasure from a good hoax, but more sinister applications leave you contemptuous, resentful and out of pocket. I'm not exactly sure where the line is, but there must be one, surely? As for the people who claim to know these fictitious characters: well, some people apparently talk to aliens, others to God.


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September 29 2011

From crowdsourcing to crime-sourcing: The rise of distributed criminality

Crowdsourcing began as a legitimate tool to leverage the wisdom of the crowds to solve complex business and scientific challenges. Unfortunately, these very same techniques are increasingly being adopted by the criminal underground for nefarious purposes.

The concept of crowdsourcing first gained widespread attention in an article written in 2006 by Jeff Howe for Wired Magazine. Howe defined crowdsourcing as the act of outsourcing a task to a large, undefined group of people through an open call.

The increasing application of crowdsourcing is changing "business as usual" in a wide variety of industries. In a noted example, Don Tapscott, in his book Wikinomics, described how one Canadian gold mining company facing a looming shutdown desperately turned to the general public to help solve a critical business problem. The company, Goldcorp, was so frustrated with the inability of its own geologists to locate any gold that it did something unheard of at the time: it offered $500,000 to anyone who could find and map the location of the company's own gold in its own mines. To facilitate the effort, Goldcorp posted their full datasets online. After receiving submissions from more than a thousand people in 50 different countries, Goldcorp achieved the success that had so eluded the firm previously. A member of the public used Goldcorp's data to make an incredible discovery and to locate more than $3 billion worth of gold using techniques never previously employed in the mining industry.

While numerous productive examples of crowdsourcing such as the Goldcorp case have been documented over time, these very same techniques increasingly are being exploited for criminal purposes as well.

Crime and the crowd

The growing popularity of crowdsourcing has not gone unnoticed, either, by international organized crime groups and local neighborhood thugs, each of which is quickly updating its tactics to drive operational efficiencies. Welcome to the world of "crime-sourcing." Borrowing from Howe's concept, crime-sourcing can be defined as the act of taking the whole or part of a criminal act and outsourcing it to a crowd of either witting or unwitting individuals.

The growth in crime-sourcing is shaking up long-standing business models and traditions within the criminal underground and is leading to innovations in crime. For example, all organized crime groups have historically looked upon outsiders with great suspicion: don't trust somebody you don't know and who has not been vetted. Elaborate processes were established, such as the Mafia's Omertà, to ensure newcomers to the criminal enterprise were neither rats nor cops. It would often take years of robberies, loan sharking and murder to gain the trust and confidence of the "boss."

The distributed crime network

As the world turned to globalization, so too did organized crime. Their initial attempts were limited, but generally effective. Drug cartels in Latin American began to work with organized crime groups in Eastern Europe. The Japanese Yakuza and Chinese Triads developed ties and turned to one another for very specific tasks, such as carrying out a particular "hit" or laundering a large sum of money in a different jurisdiction. Though these disparate crime groups were located in different parts of the world, they found ways to build trust and work together in their joint illicit pursuits.

Eventually, specialties emerged and criminal enterprises learned to outsource all tasks not within their specific areas of expertise. For example, in a standard phishing operation, an organized crime group might commission the creation of a scam web page and contact a secondary broker to get a list of thousands of email addresses. Using another intermediary, the crime group would get access to a compromised computer and rent a botnet to distribute the spam emails for a period of agreed upon time, such as 12 or 24 hours.

As hapless victims readily provided their banking and credit card information, the data would be culled and forwarded to the contracting criminals. The crime group would likely rent a distributed proxy network to obfuscate their true locations and to run transactions against the compromised accounts.

Of course, all this money needs to be received, processed and laundered in a way that protects the criminal enterprise, and there are numerous illicit techniques for hiring unsuspecting participants to take on the task. The most common is to place an ad in a print newspaper or an online publication offering opportunities to "work from home" and make "quick money" as an "importer/exporter."

Using this ruse, organized crime groups have duped thousands into receiving stolen property at their homes and opening shell bank accounts in their own names. After the funds are received in the account of the unwary pawn, he is instructed to immediately send them overseas via Western Union exchange for a small fee or commission. In doing so, the crime groups have crowdsourced the most dangerous part of their business, leaving behind a trail of false leads for law enforcement to find.

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Strangers with a common criminal cause

One of the more interesting developments in crowdsourced offenses has been the birth of the crime "flash mob." The practice of crime flash mobs has become so common that the media have now coined a term "flash robs" to describe the ensuing theft and violence. In these cases groups of individual criminals, who may or may not even know each other, are organizing themselves online and suddenly descending into unsuspecting stores to steal all that they can in a flash. The unsuspecting merchant has little he can do when 40 unruly strangers suddenly run into his shop and run off with all his merchandise. Dozens of these cases have occurred, including one in which co-conspirators planned an attack via Facebook and Twitter that lead to the pillaging of a Victoria's Secret store in London.

Sadly, flash mobs are increasingly turning violent as innocent bystanders are being attacked and assaulted in broad daylight. In Chicago in June 2011, dozens descended on a neighborhood street and began assaulting and robbing law-abiding citizens. In the Chicago incident, 15-20 youths dragged a man off his motor scooter and severely beat him. A mere two months later in Philadelphia, a similar incident occurred.

Flash mobs are an advantageous way of crowdsourcing a robbery for the criminals involved. Using the power of the Internet, they are able to assemble an overwhelming force of unrelated strangers. Thus, if any of the participants involved are arrested, they are unlikely to be able to "rat" on their co-conspirators, whom they met for the first time at the scene of the crime.

The crime request hotline

Crime-sourcing reached new heights earlier this year when noted hacking group LulzSec opened up a hacking request hotline for the general public. The group advertised the 614 area code phone number on its Twitter feed and allowed the crowd to select LulzSec's next hacking victim. This new modus operandi in crime-sourcing allows the public to vote, "American Idol"-style, on who shall be the next victim of a crime. The group later released a statement noting that it had successfully launched distributed denial of service attacks (DDoS) against eight sites suggested by callers.

Crime-sourcing's unwitting accomplices

Not all of those who participate in a crowdsourced crime do so knowingly. In fact, employing crowdsourcing techniques, it is increasingly possible for organized crime groups to get hapless innocents to carry out key elements of a crime on their behalf. In one example, the unsuspecting (and the lustful) were enticed to solve a CAPTCHA word puzzle in order to get access to free online pornography.

It seemed like a good deal for the end-user: for each CAPTCHA they solved, a person using the name Melissa would provide access to more and more pornographic images. What the end-user did not know is that, in fact, the CAPTCHAs being solved were being used to break into Yahoo email accounts and steal information. By tapping the public appetite for pornography, organized crime groups were able to create a useful crowdsourced method of automating CAPTCHA solving in order to give them unauthorized access to email accounts.

Crowdsourcing a criminal casting call

In perhaps one of the most ingenious uses of crime-sourcing seen to date, a bank robber in Seattle utilized Craigslist to recruit a crowd of unwitting participants to facilitate his escape. In the days leading up to the robbery, the perpetrator placed an ad on Craigslist seeking workers for a purported road-maintenance project paying $28.50 an hour. He instructed his "contractors" to show up at a street location at the exact place and time an armored car was to be delivering cash to a local Bank of America.

The robber instructed all those showing up for the promise of work to wear their own yellow vest, safety goggles, respirator mask and blue shirt — the criminal's exact outfit the day of the robbery. After overpowering the armored car driver with pepper spray, the suspect grabbed a duffel bag filled with cash, ran past a dozen or so similarly dressed innocents and made his escape 100 yards away to a local creek where he floated away in a pre-positioned inner tube. 911 calls reporting the robbery described the suspect as being a construction worker in a yellow vest. When police arrived on seen, they had numerous robbery suspects from which to choose.

Crime-sourcing meets "investigation-sourcing"

While crime-sourcing has allowed organized crime groups to commit more crimes with less risk, law enforcement officials are now leveraging the power of crowdsourcing to fight crime as well.

The NYPD has already launched a social media unit to track criminals on Facebook and Twitter. More recently, as the streets of the UK burned in the aftermath of violent protests, citizens of London banded together online to identify looters.

In one of the most impressive uses of "investigation-sourcing" to date, the Canadian public came together to identify the thousands of protesters who caused millions of dollars of damage as a result of the Vancouver Canucks losing the NHL championship in June 2011. Using a variety of image processing techniques, the firm Gigapixel was able to assemble 216 publicly submitted photographs and assemble them into one seamless high-resolution image. The phenomenal resolution of the resultant picture allowed the faces of tens of thousands of riot participants to be viewed in high resolution. The identification of more than 10,000 participants by name was completed by tagging individuals in Facebook, breaking a record for the number of tags in a given image to date. Many of those identified in the photos have now been successfully arrested and prosecuted by Canadian authorities.

The future of crime-sourcing

The technology involved in various crowdsourcing techniques is, of course, neither good nor bad. What started as a legitimate methodology to tap the wisdom of crowds for the betterment of business and science has unfortunately been adopted by the criminal underground. As demonstrated in the numerous examples listed above, organized crime groups clearly understand how to employ these techniques to commit more crime with less risk.

Undoubtedly, criminals will continue to innovate and develop new tactics to grow their profits from crime-sourcing. Whether this crime trend continues unabated depends on the ability of the police and the law-abiding members of our society to organize themselves as an effective countermeasure. In the looming clash between cops and robbers to crowdsource good versus evil, victory will belong to whichever group proves itself capable of mobilizing the larger crowd.

Thanks to Tarun Wadhwa for his helpful comments on earlier drafts of this post.


Below you'll find video from Marc Goodman's Strata Summit presentation, "The Business of Illegal Data":

Photo on home and category pages: Crime Scene by alancleaver_2000, on Flickr

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August 12 2011

Letters: Safety of pictures at the National Gallery

It was prompt action and quick thinking by our gallery assistant staff – following well-established procedures – that led to the swift apprehension of the attacker who vandalised two paintings by Nicholas Poussin (Staff cuts at National Gallery 'putting art at risk', 11 August). CCTV footage of the incident shows it took 16 seconds from the start of the attack to his being detained. Our conservation staff were alerted immediately and on the scene within the hour. This ensured no lasting damage to the original paint surfaces – in fact, two paintings were back on public display within 48 hours.

The system of a gallery assistant invigilating more than one room is not – as the article seems to portray – unusual or controversial in the museum and gallery field. Most galleries in London, and across the UK, Europe and beyond, use similar systems throughout their rooms because we believe this to be a more effective and reliable means of invigilation.

The National Gallery had one-third of its rooms invigilated in this way. An extension to selected rooms has been implemented with the full approval of the National security adviser, and includes a significant investment in new technology and upgrades to existing systems. The change in the number of gallery assistants is incremental, and claims that the gallery is "halving its surveillance" are untrue. We continually monitor all security arrangements and seek feedback externally and internally.

It is important to emphasise the gallery was considering such an extension long before needing to identify savings, and that there have been no "staff cuts" as a result of this change in invigilation technique – any reduction in staff numbers is the result of staff turnover.

Dr Nicholas Penny

Director, The National Gallery


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August 10 2011

National Gallery's cut in number of warders condemned

Criticism of security arrangements follows vandalism of two Poussin paintings at the London gallery

The National Gallery in London has reduced the number of warders it employs in a move that has raised concerns among some art and security experts for making its collection more vulnerable to damage or theft.

News of the staff cuts comes barely a month after two Poussin masterpieces were vandalised by a man who sprayed them with red paint.

Warders, officially titled "gallery assistants", previously oversaw one room but are now required to watch over two. The gallery argues that this arrangement was planned before the need to identify savings, as a "more effective means of invigilation" and a third of the gallery's rooms use the arrangement. It also says the system is deployed by most other important galleries and museums in the UK and around the world.

However, a gallery insider believes this new system gave the vandal time to attack two paintings in room 19 –The Adoration of the Golden Calf, and The Adoration of the Shepherds – because the warder's attention was split between two rooms.

Yet the gallery is extending the arrangements, and from this week Goyas and Canalettos in rooms 38 and 39 will also be overseen by one warder only. The insider warned that the rooms were busy with "many blind spots".

The internal source said that faced with increasing visitor numbers and with "trouble-making" people entering the National Gallery, a reduction in warder numbers would place paintings in much greater danger of theft or damage. The source said: "If the policy of one warder per room had been kept…the damage would have been reduced to just one painting."

Peter Osborne, a former national security adviser to the Museums and Galleries Commission, said that cuts in security were widespread in museums. He said: "They're trying to manage with less. That's when things will start going wrong or will start going missing." In the past, museums would shut a room if they could not staff it, he recalled. Technology might improve the quality of security but it was unlikely to replace the human response.

Michael Daley, director of ArtWatch UK, who has been an outspoken critic of the gallery in the past, described the security reduction as reckless. Daley said: "The most alert and attentive person cannot be in two places at once … and cannot see through walls." He acknowledged the gallery's claim that perambulatory staff were more effective, but said: "The quantity of surveillance is halved whether or not its quality improves."

Another leading expert on art security, Will Geddes, described gallery warders as being a "visual deterrent".

The National Gallery insists that the changes to its security arrangements are not a cost-saving measure.

A spokeswoman for the gallery said security was of paramount concern, adding: "The National Gallery security arrangements are in keeping with those of other major national and international galleries and museums. Our arrangements have been approved by the national security adviser for museums, as appropriate for the protection of the collection. 

"We are closely monitoring invigilation arrangements and seeking feedback externally and internally, including from the national security adviser for museums."


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August 09 2011

I depict a riot

London's current mayhem has a history and some great art perfectly captures the terror and lawlessness of past upheaval

These are the worst social upheavals in London in living memory, say police. What about beyond living memory? The capital has seen some spectacular riots and rebellions. The early ones were not filmed or photographed, but can be seen in old paintings and prints.

In an illumination from a medieval manuscript of Froissart's Chronicles, the king and his lords in their pageantry confront an army of poor men in front of the towers and spires of London. The peasants' revolt in 1381 stormed into the capital and overran the Tower of London, whose defenders were massacred. The feudal nobility knew how to fight back. After the rebellion's leader Wat Tyler went to negotiate with the king he was stabbed to death – the nobles claimed he started it, and there were no mobile phone pictures to contradict their story – and the social order violently reimposed.

King Charles I was not so lucky in the 1640s, as his quarrel with parliament degenerated into war. In London, the radical Levellers staged debates on social justice at Putney. Anthony van Dyck's portrait of two aristocratic brothers, Lord John Stuart and Lord Bernard Stuart, in the National Gallery, conveys the scale of the conflict. The painting is a silken assertion of ruling-class hauteur; these young men in their lace and long hair seem born to rule. But they never did, because both were killed fighting on the royalist side in the civil war.

Neither the 1381 peasants' revolt nor the English civil war have much in common with the rioting and looting in London in August 2011, but there is far more of a parallel with the Gordon riots in 18th-century London. A contemporary print illustrating the destruction of Newgate prison during these massive riots in 1780 looks oddly familiar to anyone who has been looking at this week's images. The prison has been set on fire by the crowd and blazes uncontrollably. Meanwhile, prisoners escape and the prison is looted.

The Gordon riots were not pretty. The poor of 18th-century London lived on the edge, in a gin-sodden urban nightmare, if we are to believe William Hogarth's print Gin Lane. Desperation did not breed lofty ideals: the riots were provoked by a softening of the laws against Catholics. Bigoted rioters attacked foreign embassies and Catholic neighbourhoods. Yet the images eerily resemble London this week: in another 18th-century print, the crowd stoke a bonfire of furniture in front of the blazing hulk of Newgate, recognising, as rioters did this week, that furniture and furniture shops burn well.

The Gordon riots surely were the biggest in London's history to date. Hundreds of people were shot dead to bring the insurrection to a close. The cause of radicalism in Britain was hindered by the spectre of mob rule.

Looking at prints of the capital in flames in 1780 the contemporary parallels are striking. On this evidence, the riots of 2011 will take their place among the most epic upheavals in the entire history of London.


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June 09 2011

Letters: Art of pointlessness

I should like to defend Daniel Halpin (or "Tox") against the charges of certain establishment figures – police, popular artists, and prosecutors – that his work amounts to nothing more than trivial but pervasive vandalism, lacking in skill or merit (Tox tagger faces prison, 8 June).

I have enjoyed Mr Halpin's work since I started to travel to London extensively and would see "TOX 06" emblazoned on mile after mile of train carriages, railway sidings, bridges and buildings. Its ubiquity, regularity and apparent pointlessness is what makes the work a powerful critique of the monotony and triviality of the many signs and notices put up by the state which bear instructions, prohibitions and statements of the obvious.

When I walk down a street and see in the space of half a mile 20 metal plaques bearing all manner of petty injunctions – "No drinking in this area"; "No parking on matchdays 6.30pm–8.30pm"; "Dogs to be kept on leads in the park" – I feel, to borrow vocabulary from Detective Constable Livings, the state has committed a selfish vandalism which scars the environment and contributes to a sense of oppression, anxiety and lack of personal agency.

As artist Ben Flynn says, Mr Halpin's work is indeed "incredibly basic" and lacking in "style". I think that's the point.

Dominique Hurle

London


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June 07 2011

'Tox' graffiti artist convicted of criminal damage

'King of taggers' Daniel Halpin remanded in custody after jury decides his ubiquitous Tox tag is vandalism

To some he is an urban icon, a street artist dedicated to bombing his tag on more, and riskier, places than any other in the UK.

But Daniel Halpin – or Tox, "king of taggers" and scourge of London Underground's cleaning force – faces the possibility of prison walls as his only canvas after a jury decided his art was vandalism and convicted him of criminal damage.

The 26-year-old, from Camden, north London, whose masked image and story of anarchism has featured on television documentaries and in magazines, was found guilty of a string of graffiti attacks across England after prosecutor Hugo Lodge told a jury: "He is no Banksy. He doesn't have the artistic skills, so he has to get his tag up as much as possible."

As he was remanded in custody for sentencing, his artistic merit was further questioned by the reformed guerilla graffiti artist turned establishment darling Ben "Eine" Flynn, whose work was presented to the US president, Barack Obama, by the prime minister, David Cameron, last year.

"His statement is Tox, Tox, Tox, Tox, over and over again," said Flynn after the trial at Blackfriars crown court, in which he gave evidence as an expert witness. In his opinion, the Tox "tags" or signatures, and "dubs" (the larger, often bubble lettering) were "incredibly basic" and lacking "skill, flair or unique style".

Halpin, found guilty of seven counts of criminal damage, was convicted alongside Daniel "CK1" Fenlon, 25, from Bristol, who was found guilty of one count. Goldsmith College student Gordon McDermott, 24, who the prosecution alleged was known as Cut and sometimes Miz, was acquitted.

Nicholas "Host" Rowley, a former student at Edinburgh College of Art, and Riga "Rigz" Paizis, who worked in a graffiti shop, both admitted six counts of criminal damage and await sentencing along with Halpin and Fenlon.

The five were arrested as part of British Transport Police's (BTP) Operation Misfit, which claimed to have identified their tags in Paris, Lille, London, Glasgow, Bristol, Leicester, Market Harborough, Kettering, Chippenham, and even on a funeral home in Bath.

Halpin – whose tag is simply Tox followed by the last two digits of the year – had claimed he was the victim of imitators. He said he had "retired" in 2005 after a career defacing buses, trains, bridges and walls earned him a string of asbos, which he largely ignored, and community service orders.

Cashing in on his notoriety, he is said to have made £9,000 in two hours by selling pictures with his Tox tag. Reports in 2009 that he was selling 100 canvasses bearing his notorious mark, at £75 each, precipitated heated debate. Purists condemned him for "selling out", while legal experts mused over whether a loophole made him impervious to the Proceeds of Crime Act.

But far from retiring, the Blackfriars jury was told, Halpin – acclaimed "king of taggers" by graffiti magazine Crack and Shine – had remained active and been caught on CCTV in Paris and London. The jury heard that what he lacked in talent he made up for in unrivalled willingness to scramble to hard-to-reach and risky spots.

"I don't know where you can't see a Tox tag – they are in places even I don't know how to access," one London Underground manager once admitted.

Debunking Halpin's defence of an army of imitators, Lodge told the jury: "Every time he talks about being Tox, his face lights up. He can't help but smile. He hasn't retired. He has turned professional. To maintain this, he has to keep getting his tag up. It's everywhere, and it's him."

Following Tuesday's verdict, judge Peter Clarke QC said of Halpin, who has spent 150 days in custody since his arrest: "The simple fact is the evidence effectively says he hasn't given up."

Flynn, 40, a married father of three living in Hastings, was called by the defence to offer his opinion on whether the tags could have been the work of impersonators, and said the Tox tags he had been shown were so basic that "pretty much anybody could quite easily duplicate it".

But that was the fate of graffiti art today, he said, with more secure train yards, fences, razor wire and increased security patrols allowing less time to be creative.

The appearance of Tox's tag in gilt-framed canvasses was "well funny", Flynn said, adding: "Art is worth what people are prepared to pay for it." People must have bought them as an investment, he added. "I can't imagine they bought them because they actually like them."

Detective Constable Will Livings, of the BTP Graffiti Unit, said: "Some people consider graffiti to be art but in reality it is nothing more than selfish vandalism that not only scars the railway environment but contributes to fear of crime and costs operators thousands of pounds in equipment downtime, as well as cleaning." BTP would "always seek to catch and prosecute those who commit such crimes", he said.

From graffitist to artist

Ben Flynn, in his time as hardcore graffitist Eine, clocked up between 15 and 20 arrests and five convictions for criminal damage before becoming a legitimate artist, with his TWENTYFIRSTCENTURYCITY work adorning the walls of the White House. After Halpin's conviction, he said: "We would spend days drawing what we were going to paint that weekend. When I wrote graffiti, I knew I would have maybe an hour or an hour and a half to paint.

"Now, there is less time to do something nice. They have only five or 10 minutes, so they are not going to spend their time in their bedrooms developing intricate graffiti. So graffiti has evolved into something that is less easy on the eye."


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May 19 2010

Banksy prints stolen from London art gallery

Police seek man and woman after break-in and theft of two limited edition Banksy prints

Police are hunting a man and woman after two limited edition Banksy prints were stolen from a central London art gallery.

Metropolitan police released a CCTV image today of the pair, who smashed their way into Art Republic, on New Compton Street, before stealing the framed prints, which are worth more than £16,000.

Surveillance cameras filmed the man entering the shop and emerging with the two prints while the woman remained in the street. The pair made their escape on foot.

The first print, Happy Choppers, was on sale for £8,750. It is a brightly coloured image of military helicopters, some adorned with a pink bow.

The second, known as Nola (Grey Rain), shows a young girl sheltering under an umbrella from which rain is falling. It was on sale for £7,700.

The two prints, which were mounted in glass frames and measured about 3ft by 4ft, were both signed by the secretive artist, who may be a little amused at the help given by Metropolitan police.

The back cover of his book Wall And Piece bears a quote from a Met spokesman saying: "There's no way you're going to get a quote from us to use on your book cover."

Today a police spokesman said the suspects headed eastwards along High Holborn, towards Drury Lane, after the raid at 4am on Saturday 1 May.

Both suspects were described as white and aged between 30 and 40. The man wore a white long-sleeved tracksuit and a dark blue baseball cap. The woman had shoulder-length blonde hair.

Banksy's work has proved attractive to thieves before. In 2007, 10 prints worth about £10,000 were stolen in Brighton, again from a branch of Art Republic.


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