HomeTechOpenreach Tackle UK Copper Cable Theft with DNA Tracing Tech

Openreach Tackle UK Copper Cable Theft with DNA Tracing Tech


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Network operator Openreach (BT) has told ISPreview that they’ve seen a 30% fall in the theft of their copper phone and broadband cables (Metal Theft) over the last year, which is being partly attributed to the deployment of a new “invisible” forensic liquid marker that can be sprayed directly onto cables and equipment.

The technology works by leaving a unique DNA trace on people and vehicles that have contact with it. The tagging formula uses synthetically-manufactured DNA particles to create a unique ID code, so if the operator’s kit is stolen and the police recover it, it can be linked back very precisely to the exact location it was stolen from.

NOTE: Such thefts normally occur late at night and often – but not always – in rural or suburban areas (slower police response) and around manhole covers, cables, poles and any other parts of their broadband network.

Sadly, crimes like cable theft have become increasingly common in recent years, driven in part by the high price of copper, although a series of UK-wide arrests toward the end of 2022 (example) – followed by some convictions – did seem to put a limited dent in the activity. But there are still plenty of organised criminal gangs that seem to engage in the same activity.

The perpetrators of such crimes never have any regard for the harm they cause to locals, some of which are dependent upon the related services. But Openreach are hoping the new technology will help to make a further dent in such crime, and indeed there’s mounting evidence that it’s working. For example, the method recently helped to secure three convictions in Lincolnshire, including a 16-month prison sentence for attempted theft.

Metal theft remains a serious problem, not just for Openreach, but for the UK. The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) inquiry earlier this year found that over the past 10 years, metal theft has cost the UK economy an estimated £4.3 billion.

Openreach have already coated miles of underground cables with the synthetic DNA and UV tracer, called SelectaDNA (see bottom of article for a video).

Richard Ginnaw from Openreach, said:

“Cable thefts are hugely disruptive. The loss of phone and broadband is not only inconvenient but can put vulnerable people at risk. Repair work also pulls our engineers away from other work, can take weeks to finish, and costs thousands of pounds.

We take the security of our network seriously and have a wide range of crime prevention tools to prevent thefts and catch those responsible. Our dedicated security team investigates all attacks and our network is alarmed and monitored 24/7 by our control centre.

SelectaDNA is proving to be one of the best. We can put it on equipment throughout the Openreach network and it works by leaving a unique DNA trace on people and vehicles that have contact with it.

We really hope criminals will take note of this new crime-fighting tool and continue to think twice before deciding to target Openreach’s network.”

James Brown from SelectaDNA said:

“The benefits of using SelectaDNA are twofold. Not only does it help prevent and reduce crime, it also helps the police by providing irrefutable evidence to link offenders to crime scenes. Openreach’s approach to tackling crime is very proactive and innovative, and results like this demonstrate how well their tactics are working.”

One catch here is that Openreach can’t simply go around coating all the copper cables that they already have in the ground. But it’s not uncommon to see a spate of attacks hit the same area before starting to subside as the gang(s) move on – often as a result of increased public awareness, police activity and other security enhancements (e.g. CCTV cameras, drones). Suffice to say, careful targetting of such areas with this new method may produce the best results.

The rollout of full fibre (FTTP) lines should also, eventually, help to reduce such thefts as fibre has no value to thieves. But this won’t completely stop the problem from occurring because fibre and copper cables often share some of the same ducts, and thieves sometimes confuse the two. Not to mention that thieves don’t only steal copper cable, but also go after other equipment (e.g. batteries in street cabinets) that may now also be protected with the new method.

At this point, those of you who have been around in this industry for a while may recall that a similar approach was in fact tried some 14 years ago (here). Back then a “sophisticated forensic marking liquid“, called SmartWater, was used to mark the outer shell and inner core of the operator’s cables, along with tools and other equipment. But it’s unclear what happened to that.

However, Openreach says the new approach is a lot “smarter” than SmartWater, not least because it can very precisely pinpoint where a theft has occurred (down to a specific spot within their network) and the marker is unique to the network operator. This helps to secure convictions by irrefutably linking a perpetrator to the crime scene. The new system is also more versatile (i.e. it can be sprayed on, or applied as a gel etc.).

NOTE: Openreach works with Crimestoppers and anyone with information regarding cable theft can report it anonymously online or by phone on 0800555111, which sometimes even attracts a reward of up to £20k.

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