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How math is being used to hunt for Banksy, the elusive street artist

 Scientists have applied a type of modeling used to track down criminals or map disease outbreaks to identify the graffiti artist, whose real name has never been confirmed.
Scientists have applied a type of modeling used to track down criminals or map disease outbreaks to identify the graffiti artist, whose real name has never been confirmed. AP Photo/Alastair Grant, File

LONDON – Elusive street artist Banksy may have been unmasked — by mathematics.

Scientists have applied a type of modeling used to track down criminals and map disease outbreaks to identify the graffiti artist, whose real name has never been confirmed.

The technique, known as geographic profiling, is used by police forces to narrow down lists of suspects by calculating from multiple crime sites where the offender most likely lives.

The researchers used the location of 140 Banksy artworks in London and Bristol, western England. Writing in the Journal of Spatial Science, they said the artworks “are associated with sites linked to one prominent candidate” — Robin Gunningham, previously named in media reports as Banksy.

They said the study is not conclusive but “does provide some support for the theory that he is Banksy.”

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Banksy’s spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.

READ MORE: Is this the unhappiest place on Earth? Banksy unveils ‘Dismaland’

The artist’s satirical stencils — rats, kissing policemen, riot police with yellow smiley faces — first appeared on walls in Bristol before spreading to London and then around the world. His works have fetched as much as $1.8 million at auction.

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In this Monday, June 24, 2013 file photo, Bonhams employees adjust a spray paint work by urban artist Banksy at Bonhams auction house in London. AP Photo/Frank Augstein, File
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Banksy's "The street is in play" appeared in New York Oct. 1.
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A piece of street art depicting a heart-shaped balloon covered in bandages, allegedly done by the street artist Banksy, is seen on October 7, 2013 in the Red Hook neighborhood of the Brooklyn borough of New York City. The piece was defaced with red spray paint shortly after being completed. Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images
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Banksy's 'What we do in life echoes in Eternity' in New York City. Erik Pendzich/Rex
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The mysterious UK artist Bansky says he set up a stall in New York's Central Park on Saturday and sold authentic pieces for $60 each. His pieces are generally valued at thousands of dollars. Banksy
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Work by British graffiti artist Banksy is displayed on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. AP Photo/Alyssa Goodman
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Graffiti by British street artist Banksy is seen on a roll-down security gate covering the main entrance to Larry Flint's Hustler Club on October 24, 2013 in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of New York City. On Banksy's website a caption for the work reads, 'Waiting in vain...at the door of the club.' . John Moore/Getty Images
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A new Banksy work on a side of a wall is viewed on October 3, 2013 in New York City. New work by the mysterious British street artist Banksy has appeared in New York after he announed a a month-long residency in the city. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
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Banksy's Balloon Girl has been transformed for a campaign to show support for Syrians as the world marks the third anniversary of the country's civil war. Banksy.co.uk/Screen grab
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A dove in a bulletproof vest by graffiti artist Banksy in Bethlehem, Palestine. AP Photo/Travel Channel

The researchers say their art-sleuthing “demonstrates the flexibility of geographic profiling.” Lead writer Steven Le Comber, a mathematical biologist at Queen Mary University of London, said the technique had uses beyond criminology, such as working out where epidemics start.

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He said that during a malaria outbreak in Cairo, “we found that if we used the addresses of people with malaria we could find the mosquitoes that were spreading the disease very easily.”

Le Comber said the Banksy hunt suggested geographic profiling could even be used to track down terrorists before they commit an attack.

“Some terrorists will engage in graffiti, banner-posting and leafletting to establish their credibility,” Le Comber said. “You could potentially use the spatial pattern of leafletting to identify the location of terror cells.”

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