When soccer fans rioted in Rotterdam last April – this time targeting the police, not just rival fans – they might have expected a fierce chase. There was no way to foresee, however, the unique wireless wrinkle used in the pursuit by prosecutors determined to round up as many of the offenders as possible.

After the initial phase of the investigation left many of more than 200 suspects on the loose, the Dutch authorities turned to a kind of cellular door-to-door search – mass text messaging in search of criminal information.

The clash was a uniquely bloody event for the department, with 50 officers badly hurt, according to Degraaff. Approximately 40 people were arrested on the scene.

Video images taken by the police during the melee were used to add 250 suspects, Degraaff said. Permission to show the image grabs on Dutch television and a police Web site was granted by the authorities.

Unsatisfied with the results of those efforts, prosecutors decided to try using SMS for the first time in search of more witnesses.

Investigators sent the SMS to 17,000 cellular subscribers, telling recipients that their phones were known to have been near the riot and to call the police with any information. The numbers were obtained from regional mobile carriers, whose records showed which phones were present in the riot area.

Since the message was sent out in July, Degraaff said, arrests in the case have surpassed 130, with 100 suspects having begun court proceedings. Degraaff said her office believed the SMS effort played a role in leading to the additional arrests.

The agency has dubbed the tactic “digital door-to-door,” a reference to the door-to-door search for witness information police officers typically conduct in the area of a crime.

In the case of mass SMS, Degraaff said prosecutors obtained the numbers without any names, broadcasting the message without having any data about the identity of the recipients, a function of Dutch privacy laws.

Privacy vs. legitimate law enforcement will always be a necessary topic in a society becoming more and more interleaved with technology and communications. The fear consistently remains one of abuse by government.



  1. Miguel Lopes says:

    Yes, your point is valid. But this was clearly a legitimate use of electronic data to identify and prosecute criminals. We must remain vigilant, always, of course. Nothing is ever static. But I really hope they get all those bastards and publicize this so to deter future problems of this kind. Of course, this may yet make hooligans turn against *everyone* on sight, since just about everyone has a mobile phone these days!

  2. Alan says:

    Speaking as a US citizen, the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution places limits on the ability of the various police agencies to make arrests, search people and their property, and to seize anything they find as part of that search. I am completely behind such laws. However, using the cell network to find potential witnesses is, to me, not unlike using images from security cameras around the scene of a crime to identify either criminals or potential witnesses. I feel this is completely legitimate.

  3. Eideard says:

    I screwed-up, this morning, when moderating some of the Comments. I accidentally deleted one which pointed out the beer in the graphic [above] was German.

    Of course, I don’t doubt football hooligans are just like our own gang banger trash and drink the cheapest chemical swill they can find. So, a discussion of decent beer isn’t required. I won’t even be provocative and name what Lite brand I’ll bet they drink.

  4. 0x1d3 says:

    I think that this is a ligitamate way to find criminals. Just like the article says its just like door to door.

  5. to_glow says:

    At what point will, this ability to know that you were near a crime turn into a conviction that you were involved in the crime. Or if you don’t like that try this; ” you must be part of the crime since you refuse to provide any information about the actual participants”.

    Most citizens don’t understand the presure that come to bare upon LLEA to solve through arrests and convictions crimes. It doesn’t really matter if you are guilty or not. Most of the time it’s simply a numbers game. So many arrests show that you are doing your job, failure to produce arrests show that you aren’t doing your job and leads to presure to produce results. The mentality of letting the courts sort it out is almost always present.

    How many of the individuals present on this site could afford $10,000 for a defense. It becomes cheaper to simply admit to some lesser crime, i.e. disorderly conduct, than fight it out in court. But this window of escape is only just that a window, it doesn’t lead out, but into the system. Once you’ve got one offense on your record then it becomes increasingly easier to find other offenses that you can be brought to justice for.

    If you think this happens only in foreigh countries, then you haven’t been paying attention. This is what happens here, it’s worse in other countries, much worse. Remember, it is a crime to with hold evidence of a crime.

  6. Smith says:

    Something about this tactic bothers me, but I can’t say exactly why. Perhaps it is my mistrust of the judgement and motives of our law enforcement.

    Giving them the technology to track anyone they please, anywhere they please, anytime they please is granting them extraordinary power. And I don’t see any mechanism that would impose restraint upon its use.


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