Aug. 9, 2011 at 2:46 PM ET
Taking full advantage of the fact that England is the most video-surveilled country in the world, London's Metropolitan Police are using Flickr to help catch the culprits behind the damage and theft. Yet the closed-circuit television screen grabs featured in the photo set "London Disorder — Operation Withern" offer little more than timestamp and location.
The mere 15 photos (at the time of this post) show what comes off as bored youth, milling about with their faces concealed by hoodies pulled over their heads, and scarves or bandanas covering everything but their eyes. Beyond the lenses of CCTV however, citizens are snapping looters in action, without the identity-hiding garb. Many of the alleged perpetrators are easily identifiable — if you happen to know who they are.
As with the online rogues' galleries posted to find perpetrators during Vancouver's Stanley Cup riots, London citizens are using social media to capture casual pictures of vandals and crooks clever enough to hide from the cops (and the CCTV cameras). The convergence of facial recognition software with social networks like Facebook favors the would-be exposer or stalker, but criminals have more to fear from tipsters checking out riot photos. Face recognition needs a full, frontal photo to make an ID. A human just needs to know who you are.
With 500 members and growing, the "Lets catch the London 201 rioters and looters" Facebook community page features a growing collection of both photos and videos. There are the kind of shots anyone watching the news knows — people running past torched cars or rushing smashed shop windows.
"Clear facial shot" reads the caption of a young man in front of what appears to be a flaming Volkswagen Beetle, hoodie still over his head, but his scarf fallen from his face — caught on camera in a pose that suggests he just threw something, hard.
"You may get away with it today but not in the coming days with these pictures. Hope they rot in jail." reads the comment under a photo of two men and two women hightailing it out of the broken facade of a clothing store, arms full of bags and apparel still on hangers.
More startling are the close-up shots taken by cell phones, showing grinning youth, shamelessly posing with the stuff the captions imply they've just stolen.
"You wont look so pleased for yourself when the law catches up with you," reads the caption underneath a photo of a kid strutting with a boxed flatscreen TV in his arms.
The comment under a photo of a girl pointing to an economy-size bag of basmati rice simply reads, "Really?"
The Tumblr blog Catch a Looter is also collecting photos of looters and vandals in action all over London, many of them also offering fairly clear views of the apparent criminals, their faces uncovered.
"If you recognise anyone, contact Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111, or preferably via https://secure.crimestoppers-uk.org/ams.form.anonymous.asp," writes the anonymous Catch a Looter curator, who also urges civility in the face of violence:
This site does not support vigilante action; I'm merely using social media to collate all images in one place. It should also be clear that a photo appearing here does is not an indication of guilt in any way; wearing a balaclava and carrying a bag of stuff isn't illegal, nor is it evidence of looting. Just to be clear.
As some of the comments under the candid camera shots on Facebook and Tumblr show, people are anxious for humor even as an end to the violence is still uncertain. With the Internet being what it is, of course, there's even a Tumblr for those so inclined to laugh. Photoshoplooterfeatures those images seen in the news, on Facebook and it's sister Tumblr, Catch A Looter, manipulated into memes.
That kid stealing the giant flatscreen? Now he's playing a humongous accordion. That guy in front of the fire who appears to have thrown something? Now he's petting a tiny horse. And while putting a tutu on a guy running past a fire pushing a shopping cart full of what one assumes to be stolen isn't exactly justice, it's something.
More on social media and the London riots: