A frenzy of paranoia about Geograph in the equestrian community resulted in the publication of an article on the Horse and Hound website. Though I’m only one of three people who officially run the website, I do handle most of the complaints directed at us.
Over the past few days, I’ve spent a lot of time responding to people who are frightened and concerned by Geograph, and so I want to collect my thoughts here. This is a first draft, as it’s going to take a while to get all the information we need from relevant authorities.
On 12 October, a post was made on a popular equestrian website:
This site aims to have a picture in every map square for the whole country
You pop in your postcode or where your horses are kept and hey presto pics of your area appear—click on a pic and pan down the page for exact location
My boys ARE THERE complete with exact location of their grazing field.
The pics are categorised and there are something like 1000 horse pics and 400 of ponies all with exact OS map location
These pics are not necessarily taken by horsy people so mine are classed as ‘ponies’ one is 16hh
What do you all think–is this a security issue or am I worrying unnecessarily?
The thread contains some pretty even handed responses, so we were happy to let that play out without needing to respond directly. However, the seeds of panic were being sown:
“Thieves shopping list.”
“It shows a picture of my house and stables, along with grid reference and address, and seems to me to be a shopping list for thieves. If my horses or horse trailer get stolen I will know how the thieves found me!”
“The whole principle of this site is ridiculous.”
In the following days we received two specific complaints; one wasn’t horse related, a photograph which was allegedly shot from a private vantage point, which we removed. The other included a horse but we felt the complaint was without merit, and I’ll explore the general reasons for that later in this essay.
The thread continued and on Oct 16 we were contacted by Charlotte White, deputy news editor of Horse and Hound magazine.
We have received correspondence from a number of sources, including the National Horsewatch Alliance and members of the public saying that pictures of horses and the location of where they are freely available on your website and they are concerned it could lead to thefts.
Please would you give me a ring on xxxx xxx xxxx.
After consulting the rest of the team, I sent the following response:
We don’t feel that the availability of potentially dated photographs
is a contributory factor in horse thefts, and have not been presented
with any evidence to support this hypothesis. This decade is seeing a
revolution in the availablity of high quality geolocated data, and it is
always possible to concoct ways that tools like Geograph, Google Maps or
Windows Live Local can be used for evil, ignoring far more likely
That said, we have received only *one* specific complaint in recent
days, regarding a shot with a horse in the far background. We will
continue to review any specific complaints brought to us though -
photographs involving trespass or other privacy intrusion are dealt
with swiftly, and we’re always ready to consider other complaints.
The article was published on 23rd Oct 2008, and discussed at length on the their forums.
I spent all Thursday evening dealing with the correspondence this generated, and in the early hours began preparing this essay in which I wish to address the concerns raised.
About horses and their owners
As a preamble, not everyone reading this may have direct experience of horses and their owners. If you read some of the more incendiary posts on the Horse and Hound forums, you may fall into the trap of building a stereotypical picture in your mind and tarring all with the same brush. However, the ones I have corresponded with form a very wide cross section.
The only thing they have in common is a passion for horses.
Man and horse have enjoyed a close relationship throughout recorded history, and you could argue that civilization as we know it would be very different without them. As with any intelligent animal, people form close bonds with their horses, enjoy their quirks of personality and find that caring and working them provides them with a deep meaning for life.
It is also true that a horse generally represents a significant investment, and while you might certainly consider many owners wealthy, this is not the case for all. Indeed, some are involved with the rescue and care of abused or retired horses. Just as with any hobby or passion, many will happily sink every penny of their disposable income into caring for horses.
With those points in mind, one can appreciate how devastating the theft of a horse can be, and how the very fear of theft can lead to such drastic actions as owners sleeping in their stables.
Who runs Geograph and why? What sort of people take the photographs?
To balance the previous section, there may be many who read this who have only come across Geograph recently. It is a freely available, community generated project to create an archive of geographical images of the entire land mass of UK and Eire.
It was conceived by Gary Rogers, who has a keen interest in geography and education, and brought to fruition in early 2005 by two software developers, Barry Hunter and myself. It is an entirely altruistic venture, its running costs are provided through sponsorship. At present, we are sponsored by Ordnance Survey, and work closely with their education department to promote Geograph as an educational resource to schools.
All the photographs are contributed by volunteers, who grant permission for anyone to use their work in return for attribution. It attracts a wide variety of people who do it for a range of reasons. Many share our belief that the archive will be historic resource for future generations. For some, it’s an excuse to get outdoors and practice their photography. Some are addicted to the competitive aspects. There are even those who contribute in other ways, such as moderating images, making corrections, writing articles or building themed collections of images.
Regular contributors do include horse owners, farmers and others with a deep knowledge of the countryside.
The Geograph forum is home to vibrant community, and anyone is welcome to view and post, though you must first register on the site. Just like any online community, we have some highly opinionated posters, and also plenty of “old hands”. It’s worth bearing in mind when reading posts from contributors with large numbers of images that they often have war stories about run-ins with landowners or police, and have felt first hand the growing paranoia that anyone holding a camera is probably a thief, paedophile or terrorist. Maybe all three. You just don’t know these days do you?
To conclude, our contributors are generally passionate about the outdoors, passionate about photography, and for some, passionate about preserving the freedom to photograph our surroundings without fear of persecution.
Is Geograph a “Thieves Shopping List”?
Against that backdrop of passion and fear, let’s look at the main argument being levelled at Geograph, that we are providing a shopping list for thieves.
Geograph has over a million images, and a search for the keyword “horse” generates over 7000 results. Each result is a photograph, and includes geographical coordinates generally accurate to 100m, in some cases 1km. Each page also shows the Ordnance Survey grid square from their 1:50000 scale maps.
Look at that! It really does look like a shopping list. I just take my pick and then drive to the indicated location to collect, right?
Makes for a great headline, but it leads to the following questions:
- How do horse thieves really operate?
- How prevalent is horse theft?
- How does Geograph compare with other sources of intelligence
- Is there a correlation between horse thefts and images on Geograph?
- Would the absence of photographs on Geograph offer more protection
I’ve spent the past few days analysing and seeking answers to these questions.
How do horse thieves operate?
I have been in contact with police officers, members of horsewatch, and other concerned individuals in the equestrian community to find out how thieves operate.
While there are opportunists, what concerns us most are organised gangs. The UK Horsewatch Alliance publishes an information sheet based on what they have learned. It begins:
- Your daily routine will be watched and logged over a period of 2 to 4 weeks. Your time of arrival and departure, etc.
- The thief will go onto your yard or into your field to see how far he will get before being challenged or before triggering alarms.
- Your response time will be monitored.
- Movement of vehicles on the premises will be monitored from a safe
- You will be watched to see if any dogs are left on the premises.
Horsewatch offer a lot of practical advice on defending livestock from the methods employed.
Against this level of effort and sophistication, a photograph on Geograph is not making their task any easier. A gang which has has decided to target an area has to do an awful lot more than surf the Internet to succeed.
However, some feel that were it not for Geograph publishing a photograph, the location of their horses would be a secret. In other words, Geograph provides the tipping point for a thief deciding whether or not to target their location.
Towards the end of this essay, I discuss the approaches we can take when this claim in verifiably true. But first, I wanted to understand more about the crime and the other sources of intelligence available to criminals.
How prevalent is horse theft?
While I am awaiting data from a number of police forces, there is some material in the Stolen Horse Register. Not all stolen horses are placed on the register, but it can provide some useful information.
This year they’ve detailed approx 40 incidents, with 64 horses stolen, with 47 yet to be recovered. Let’s assume the true figure is closer to 100.
There are approximately one million horses in the UK.
All other factors being equal, that equates to a 1:10000 chance a horse will be stolen, or 0.01%
It is perhaps hard to visualise what 0.01% means, so by way of comparison, consider that approx 2% of UK households experienced domestic burglary in 2007-08 according to the Home Office. I’m not trying to equate the two crimes, just that for most people, someone in your circle of friends and acquaintances has probably experienced burglary, and so you have an approximate notion of its prevalance: Horse theft is 200 times less prevalent, or to put it another way, if domestic burglaries were at 0.01%, your social circle would need to be 200 times larger to encounter the same number of affected people.
The reasons for this are that it is a difficult crime to carry out, requiring much planning and preparation. Also, because every horse in the EU must have an equine passport, it’s difficult to do much with a stolen horse without that paperwork. You can’t move it, breed it, enter it in competitions or slaughter it. It is thought most are smuggled out of the country among larger herds, to markets where the regulation is more loosely applied. Again, the logistics of this make it a game for highly organised criminals.
How does Geograph compare with other sources of intelligence
There are many public sources of intelligence available to those who seek it, and if it’s it your job to profit from such intelligence, you can bet there are ways to obtain even more. I’ll examine a few here.
Wide searches for terms like “livery stables” can provide addresses and postcodes for further analysis. You can also search specific areas for keywords within Google Maps, e.g. “livery stables wrexham”
With the right equipment, digital photographs can be tagged with accurate coordinates when the picture was taken. A photographer might also tag their images by hand during post production.
These location tags enable the photos to be more searchable, and on popular photography websites like Flickr, you can perform location-based keyword searches, e.g. to find pictures with “horse” in the title which have location information.
The equipment which makes this possible is steadily trickling down into cheaper consumer electronics. Many current mobile phones add location tags to images. The computer chip required to accomplish this is both tiny and cheap, and it won’t be long before it becomes a standard feature in most digital cameras.
The ubiquity of these devices is also driving a surge of interest in other location based services and datasets.
Aerial and Satellite Imagery
Google Maps and Windows Live Local provide good quality aerial photography of the UK. The layout of farms and hedgerows can be studied, and it’s often possible to discern animals in fields.
Since its launch in 2005, the available imagery has steadily improved, and Google is a major partner in the recently launched GeoEye-1 satellite, the highest resolution commercial earth-imaging satellite. The satellite greatly increases Google’s capacity to deliver even more detail, and with more timely updates.
Google Maps also allows people to publish customised layers of information, such as this one of stables put together by Horse and Hound forum readers.
Street Level Photography
Google Streetview photography vehicles are already active in the UK, providing street level photographs integrated into Google Maps, so you can appreciate how things look from the ground, as well as the air.
Equestrian Message Boards and Forums
The great strength about forum posts as an intelligence source is their timeliness – you can obtain extremely up to date information about the horses someone has and where they are stabled. By observing the posts of an individual over time, you can build a profile of them to form a better picture of a potential target.
In addition, many have been set up by enthusiasts and may not keep their member profiles secure without regular professional maintenance (I speak from personal experience having been contracted to provide security audits).
Classified ads, such as those on the Horse and Hound website are again timely, but also provide some financial information. Given some criteria for the type of horse and value, you can find owners who are selling along with approximate location and phone number. While writing this article, I picked a few at random, and I was able to obtain an address from the phone number from a simple Google Search. There are commercial reverse lookup services which can make this task even easier for those who have not opted to go ex-directory.
Event and show catalogues
Most horse events above the local level publish catalogues detailing the horses and their stables, along with their rider numbers. After the event, the rider numbers can be correlated with photography on professional event photography websites.
Is there a correlation between horse thefts and images on Geograph?
I have so far contacted nine police forces to see if I can obtain enough information to make this analysis. While a correlation would not imply a causal link, this would clearly be of interest to all sides of the debate.
It could take me many weeks, if at all, to obtain sufficient information to make this analysis. I will publish my findings, whatever they may be, on my blog.
Would the absence of photographs on Geograph offer more protection
This argument is based on the premise that the location of the horses would otherwise be a secret. This is not always the case. As well as aerial photography, it’s easy to obtain the addresses of stables and farms from a variety of sources, not least from the equestrian community itself. Classified ads, forums posts, event catalogues, and so forth.
There have been some forum postings from owners who feel that they have taken extra care to avoid “leaking” their links with horses to the wider world. Their horse is kept in separate field some distance from any registered address. They don’t use classified ads, participate in shows, or have any publicised address related to equestrian activities. There are undoubtedly many among these people who do not post on forums at all – indeed, in my own experience of online forums covering an offline activity, it’s a minority who are active posters.
However, we have been contacted by few who legitimately fall into this category.
This doesn’t mean they don’t exist though, so we’re going to conduct a study of a random sample of grid squares to establish to what degree this is true.
If Geograph is the first to publish a horse’s location, what then?
There’s a number of things we can do if we’re made aware of such an image – at present, these are my personal suggestions for further debate.
- Do nothing. A likely option if a horse was incidental to the image and the picture caption contained no reference to it. In this case, the photo could not be found by searching for “horse”
- Adjust caption. We have done this in the past where the caption worked just as well without a reference to horses. Removing such a reference prevents the picture from being found in a keyword search.
- Remove searchability. We could stop the photo from appearing in our search results. It would still appear if you view the grid square directly. This, and the previous two ideas, serve to prevent the image appearing to anyone who isn’t already targetting an area. In other words, you can’t learn about the presence the photo if you don’t already know the location you’re going to target.
- Bury the image for a decade, or more. We take a very long view with Geograph and believe its true worth might not be apparent for another century. A old photograph doesn’t provide useful intelligence, and so we could remove a photograph from public view until some far off future date.
- Complete removal. Naturally, we want to avoid deletion, particularly where the photograph could otherwise be of interest next century. There are many in the Geograph community who would be concerned I’m even suggesting it. I have a more pragmatic view based on the fact that we have over a million images, and over a thousand new ones a day. Losing one photo of a horse among 7000 really shouldn’t affect the aims of the project.
I should add that when investigating any complaint, if trespass has been involved we will first give the photographer a right of reply and then delete the image unless the allegation can be refuted.
Thankyou for reading
This essay is a preliminary draft of what will become our official policy for handling complaints about horses. As it appears it will take some time to obtain information from the police forces we’ve contacted, we thought it better to publish this in its present form and solicit feedback while we collect more data.
Many thanks to everyone who has assisted me in researching this topic. Thanks also to many in the equestrian community who took the time to write cogent and level-headed emails of complaint. To those that hurled threats and abuse, hopefully you can now see we did appreciate your input too.
Please leave comments on this blog if you wish. Abusive comments will be deleted or disemvoweled. If you’d rather not post publicly, contact me through the Geograph site (this ensures that all three of the site operators can read it).
Your feedback, along with more information we receive from our research, will be incorporated into a revised version of this essay and will eventually be incorporated into the Geograph site as our official policy on this issue.