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Openreach Tackle UK Copper Cable Theft with DNA Tracing Tech UPDATE

Thursday, Apr 25th, 2024 (3:06 pm) - Score 2,440

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.

UPDATE 26th Apr 2024 @ 7:45am

We’ve been informed that Virgin Media (VMO2) are also using this technology.

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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16 Responses
  1. Avatar photo Sam P says:

    Good luck with that. We all know who is responsible.

    1. Avatar photo Yo says:

      I don’t know, who?

    2. Avatar photo htmm says:

      I don’t, but If you do you can call Crimestoppers on 0800555111 and potentially claim a reward of up to £20k.

  2. Avatar photo Insertfloppydiskhere says:

    Very cool technology,Good luck getting DNA samples from a caravan site.

    1. Avatar photo NJackooo says:

      Man this cracked me up

  3. Avatar photo Fibre Scriber says:

    Travelling heavy Travelling heavy, just gotta get some copper tonight.

    1. Avatar photo Fibre Scriber says:

      These guys will do away with copper before Openreach!

  4. Avatar photo Bob says:

    If they melt the copper down and that’s not hard to do the DNA is useless

    1. Mark-Jackson Mark Jackson says:

      Yep, but of course it often sits around for a time before that happens, and the markers left on the people, vehicles and other contacts involved are likely to remain present for a lot longer.

  5. Avatar photo Big Dave says:

    I understand a lot of stolen copper gets taken out of the country and cashed in abroad. Dna marking will of limited use.

    1. Avatar photo Jon1 says:

      All gets melted down in Sheffield. Police won’t go near these gangs, big money, dangerous people with no civilian casualties.
      Travellers are just a pawn in this game.
      This device changing nothing.

    2. Avatar photo 10BaseT says:

      haha, yeah. Copper is not drugs to take it out of the country and still make a profit of it.

  6. Avatar photo Yo says:

    All I want to know is how many offenders were caught using this technology and how much copper was recovered.

    1. Avatar photo Jon1 says:

      Safe to say Zero

    2. Avatar photo Alex says:

      It literally says that 3 people were convicted in Lincolnshire.

    3. Avatar photo 10BaseT says:

      Three people convicted, thats a massive number. I am guessing police recovered 100 tons of copper.

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