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Wednesday, 25 August 2010

At last a "crime" to investigate!

Colin D from SpotCrime kindly alerted me to the fact that SpotCrime and CrimeReports are currently in dispute. He gave me this link to a commentary on the case entitled "Who owns public crime data?".  A very important and relevant question and one which the the article mysteriously fails to address let alone answer. It does however, very usefully have the full 52 page civil court complaint made by (effectively) CrimeReports against SpotCrime.

The allegation, put simply, is that SpotCrime is taking data in bulk from the CrimeReports websites by sophisticated means which SpotCrime is having difficulty preventing. The data that they are taking has been provided to CrimeReports by numerous police departments across the country who pay CrimeReports to provide the data (relating to police incidents, including crime) to the public in an approved format and detail. SpotCrime admit (it appears) to scraping the data from the CrimeReports website and then putting it on their own websites which unlike CrimeReports includes advertising to generate income. They also are selling the data in the form of alerts to media companies it appears. SpotCrime defence seems to be that the data are public property, in the public domain and therefore they have as much right to it as CrimeReports.

I have been grappling with the problem of who owns police crime-related data for about 20 years now. In 1994 I wrote "Facilitating Public Access to PNC stolen vehicle data" for the Association of Chief Police Officers and for the Home Office. This was the first crime data that the police in the UK provided to the public on an enquiry basis and it used a privately owned commercial company to do so who effectively sold the information to the public. The report, which I am proud of, had to cover ownership issues and whether the data had monetary value; it also covered the purpose of providing it to the public. At that time there were not issues regarding the public nature of data though the Freedom of Information Act subsequently enacted has changed this.

I am not going to go into the details of my argument because it would take too much space but it is clear to me that despite the public nature of the data they are owned by the police departments that produced them. It becomes jointly owned by CrimeReports who have entered into a mutually beneficial contract. CrimeReports have a degree of ownership due to adding value to the data that carries with it a duty to protect its integrity and security.

Having come to this conclusion, that carries with it the assessment that the data have monetary value, I see CrimeReport/Spotcrime case, despite it not being treated as such, as an allegation of theft, though it is probably easier to prove computer hacking offences.

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