As a man who posted video online of himself speeding at 130mph has been handed a four-month suspended prison term, police are increasingly relying on YouTube as a crime fighting weapon.
By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine
When an anonymous e-mail dropped in the inbox of Suffolk Police last autumn the fate of Danny Hyde was sealed.
It drew to the attention of officers a video posted on YouTube of Hyde, 18, driving his Astra one-handed at 130mph along the A14 near Ipswich.
He filmed it himself on his mobile phone and the footage included shots of the speedometer and the road ahead as he sped past other vehicles.
Police managed to identify Hyde and he admitted the offence to magistrates, earning a four-month suspended prison term. It is another instance where police have used video-sharing sites like YouTube to track down bragging criminals.
In Herefordshire, an 18-year-old was fined and banned from keeping animals for five years after picking up a cat and hurling it 20 feet, while friends filmed the act. The footage was put on the same website and reported to police.
But it's not just low-level crimes that are being pursued this way. Two gangs who allegedly raped a girl in Croydon, south London, and posted a video on YouTube are being hunted by police.
Officers in Merseyside are particularly vigilant. They arrested two 14-year-old boys last summer after they were spotted on YouTube damaging car wing mirrors.
And last month they appealed for help in identifying a gang, who call themselves The Liverpool Jaguar Boyz, on film driving a Jaguar at 134mph.
"The force monitors YouTube and other such websites for evidence of crimes committed locally," says a spokesman.
"It is important to establish whether images on the site originate from Merseyside, as it is often the case that some of the footage posted is duplicated when searching on different geographic areas on the website."
Police already extensively monitor the web for images of child abuse, but how reliable is a video of someone committing other crimes like speeding or assault?
WHY FILM A CRIME?
Young men get to a certain age and engage in displays of macho behaviour, says sociologist Stephanie Petrie. It's showing off using technology they have grown up with
"It's good evidence," says a solicitor in criminal law, Julian Young, "as long as you can get some proof that it's the person in the picture."
The person might just confess to the crime when asked by police, he says. But if they say the picture is not them, then officers can get voice analysis and facial mapping experts to prove it is, provided the images are of sufficient quality.
CCTV pictures are often used as evidence and police frequently take covert video of people buying and selling drugs, he says, so there's nothing in principle that counts against its reliability.
Images from CCTV have to be well-sourced with a time and date. Amateur footage is even more open to the accusation that it has been doctored, so experts would have to match the voice or dimensions of the face to the person arrested.
Some allegations are less clear-cut than others. There have been high-profile examples of celebrities filmed apparently taking drugs, but investigations by police being dropped. That may be because consuming drugs is not in itself a crime; possessing and supplying them is.
It's important the police are seen to act when someone reports a video to them, for the sake of public trust, says Dr Gloria Laycock of the Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science.
"If people put this in the public domain and expect the police to ignore it, then it says something about their opinion of the police, and it's good that they're being challenged."
As well as a YouTube video police would still need further evidence, she says, either a confession or corroborating evidence, but it's a good start.
And what about the act of filming and uploading video of a crime? That's not illegal, says Mr Young.
Danny Hyde filmed himself driving 130mph. Pic by Alban Donohoe
"Uploading images of someone being assaulted is not a criminal offence, however unpleasant," he says. But it's a complex area - some people may film a crime with the intention of using it as evidence against the perpetrators.
From next month, filming an assault and uploading the footage on to the net will be treated as an aggravating factor by judges in England and Wales. The condition is one of several new rules set down by the Sentencing Guidelines Council.
Last week a 15-year-old girl was convicted of aiding and abetting a fatal attack in West Yorkshire when she filmed it on her phone and showed it to her friends. The case was held up as the first time filming an offence, without participating in it, was considered an offence.
But Mr Young said the girl's involvement was actually more than that and "you've got to do something more than standing there taking a picture" to commit a crime.
A YouTube spokesman says it reviews any content flagged up by users as inappropriate, removes it if necessary and suspends the accounts of repeat offenders.
And it encourages police to let them know if they see videos of criminal acts. If the police ask for information then YouTube cooperates, as long as police follow the correct legal process governing disclosure that the government has laid down.
It is an unlikely partnership but as long as criminals feel the need to brag about their exploits, it is one that could be flexing its muscles more and more in the future.
Below is a selection of your comments.
It's fortuitous that some criminals aren't smart enough to keep mum about their crimes, yet at the same time I find it disturbing that these people not only feel no shame themselves(quite the opposite), but also think others will applaud their actions.
Jennifer, Albuquerque, NM, USA
With are celbrity fixated culture and lack of strong role models within communities is it any wonder youths turn to crime and violence for there fifteen minutes?
Philip Butler, Plymouth UK
I have studied sociology for some time and wish to add to the above comment from your sociologist that youths are indeed expressing more excessive ways of being 'macho' however this is a product of the culture they have grown up in. More needs to be done to stop the root of the problem. A deartment to moitor potential criminals on these sites should be set up as well. Also to finish with I feel advertising this information via the news is probably not wise as it will partially castrate the efforts of the police department, rendering yet another tool of stopping/preventing crime useless.
YouTube will be a whole lot less useful to the police now you've alerted the world to what they're doing. D'oh!
Ian Osborne, Stafford, UK
After being mugged by a group of girls recently, my daughter was able to identify just one attacker and her school uniform. We found her on Bebo, posing with the entire gang and forwarded names, nicknames and photos to the police. It was too easy. UK the most watched nation? Surely we love being watched, don't we?
If they can use YouTube to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that a crime has been comitted, then they should go right ahead and throw the book at them!
Richard Griffiths, York
There will now be an inevitable flood of fake videos showing speeding etc. which will just lead to wasting the polices time, will that be a crime too? I think the police should be more active in catching criminals in the act. Sat at a PC watching YouTube to catch criminals seems like a waste of police resource.
Anyone who breaks the law and films themselves whilst doing it, deserves everything they get. If only Policing was always that easy.
Ian Woodland, Swindon