Banksy is one of the world’s most famous artists, but amazingly, he’s been able to keep his real identity something of a mystery. On Thursday, though, a group of criminologists announced that they used a technique called “geographical profiling” to identify the famous graffiti artist.
The researchers, who published a paper about their work in the Journal of Spacial Science, mapped the latitudes and longitudes of 140 of Banksy’s works in England. They then used a forensic technique developed to identify potential suspects in cases of serial rape, arson and murder. It basically consists of looking to see if the crimes cluster around particular geographical hotspots.
The researchers employed a cheat though. They went into this project looking to prove that a man named Robin Gunningham, who had previously been identified as a Banksy candidate in the Daily Mail, was indeed him. So they were looking to see if their analysis would cluster around his known past addresses. In an “ethical note” at the bottom of the paper, the researchers say they only included in the paper the roads of Gunningham’s past addresses that are “already in the public domain.” But one privacy experts still considered the study unethical.
Lo and behold, the addresses matched the researchers’ hotspots. But as anyone knows from their 6th-grade science fair, going into an experiment assuming you know the answer is not advised. As a scientific exercise, the paper titled “Tagging Banksy: using geographic profiling to investigate a modern art mystery” is definitely flawed. If this is truly how we’re confirming people are serial killers, then I’m worried.
And the researchers admitted it: “With no other serious ‘suspects’ to investigate, it is difficult to make conclusive statements about Banksy’s identity based on the analysis presented here, other than saying the peaks of the geoprofiles in both Bristol and London include addresses known to be associated with Robin Gunningham,” they write. “However, this analysis does provide some support for the theory that he is Banksy.”
According to the BBC, Banksy’s lawyers contacted the journal about the paper, and delayed its release as they weren’t happy about the way a press release was worded.
All in all, the paper reads a bit like a brochure for the technique of geographical profiling for crime-solving. The researchers end the paper by noting that terrorists “also engage in low level activities such as vandalism, graffiti, anti-government leaflet distribution, and banner posting,” so law enforcement might map those activities and use the same technique used to find potential suicide bombers. Ideally, that work wouldn’t be based on an article in the Daily Mail.