It’s time to face up to the challenge of policing in a digital age

Blog post

It’s time to face up to the challenge of policing in a digital age

We are living through the birth of a digitally networked society characterised by technological changes as significant as those that took place during the Industrial Revolution. We should remember that it was the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution (urbanisation, factory work, social dislocation, rising crime) that gave rise to the creation of professional public policing in the early 19th century. Something similar in scale may be happening today and the implications for policing may be just as profound.

This year’s Police Foundation Annual Conference focused on understanding the implications of this new world for policing and highlighted a number of challenges for our policing and criminal justice systems.

First, the internet is a new venue for crime that does not respect geographical borders and therefore threatens the rule of law. As Carl Miller argued at our conference, the internet challenges the jurisdiction of the nation state upon which most law is based. The result is a growing enforcement crisis’ in which local and national law enforcement agencies increasingly lack the ability to protect their citizens from crime.

The rise of borderless crime will lead to renewed questions about the old balance between liberty (to trade, to exchange information etc) and security (to be protected from fraudsters, state-backed cyber hackers, paedophiles and so on). As Miller pointed out, China’s solution is to erect a cyber border’ and to police its citizens’ access to information. It is highly unlikely that a liberal democracy like ours could tolerate such a thing without undermining the very principles of individual liberty upon which it is based and without sacrificing the great social and economic benefits from the free flow of information.

Second, to the extent that we can agree that the internet should be policed, it is unclear who should be policing it and therefore what the specific role of the professional police service should be. There is a lack of clarity about the respective roles of internet service providers, social media companies, the manufacturers of digitally enabled devices, public services and citizens themselves. Given the importance of preventing cyber crime, providing citizens with the knowledge and skills to stay safe online will clearly be paramount, but public policy initiatives in this area are weak and fragmented.

Third, the dissolution of geographical borders breaks apart the traditional criminal investigation triangle of local victim, local offender and local police’. Investigating cyber crime requires much greater collaboration between police forces within the UK and beyond, as well as much greater capacity at the level of national and international policing organisations. If we are to properly pursue international criminal networks we are likely to need much more capable global policing agencies focused on investigating these offenders, outwitting them technologically and bringing them to justice.

Fourth, in a digital age policing inevitably moves away from its traditional focus on the policing of the public street. Instead, crime is increasingly occurring both on the internet and simultaneously behind the closed doors of people’s homes, bedrooms and offices. This makes crime harder to detect and more complex to investigate. Getting to grips with this will require a major change in focus given that the bulk of policing resource is still dedicated to policing the local public sphere.

Fifth, given the scale of cyber crime, how should the police prioritise which offences to investigate? To use fraud as an example, in 2016 the crime survey identified 3.6 million offences and there were 617K frauds recorded by the police. Yet in 2014/15 the number of fraudsters convicted was just 15,708. Given this volume and the sheer difficulty of investigating these complex crimes how can the police prioritise which cases they should pursue? To what degree should they go looking for cyber offences, which are generally under reported, knowing that this would generate more demand still? Even among those offences reported to them, upon what basis should the police prioritise? Harm? What does that mean and how should it be measured? What role should local public opinion play in determining priorities, given that we know it tends to lag behind actual social change and demand on the police?

Sixth, the police service needs new skills and capabilities. Policing is still by and large recruiting people who want to be traditional police officers – responding to emergencies, patrolling neighbourhoods and catching local offenders. A re-skilling of policing for a digital age is likely to require a more porous and diverse workforce, a rebalancing from generalist to more specialist roles and a mainstreaming of digital investigative skills. If we are to make the best use of big data and robotics we may also need to consider automating areas of policing that do not require a human touch.

Seventh, a networked world requires policing itself to become a more capable network. This means tackling the poor interoperability of information systems between police forces, between the police and the rest of the criminal justice system and between the police and other public services. 14 years on from the Soham murders and we have still not cracked this problem.

Finally, what does policing by consent mean in a digital age? The police need to understand how they can act legitimately in this new world. Consideration of these ethical parameters might even result in some new Peelian principles for digital policing. It is to be welcomed that the National Police Chiefs Council has established a digital ethics panel to look at these issues. There is no shortage of pressing ethical questions: Under what conditions should the police be able to access our private communications data? What personal data about citizens should the police and law enforcement agencies be able to store? Which virtual spaces are public and which are private? Does the explosion of hurtful language online require us to rethink how we police in areas like hate speech? If big data means we can increasingly predict when and where bad things will happen, what should the police do about that? How can we ensure decision-making is transparent when it is increasingly being automated via algorithms?

It is clear that our societies are in transition from an old industrial order to something very different. How to keep people safe in this digitally networked world is a pressing question and one we are only just beginning to address. It is time for those of us involved in policing and criminal justice to acknowledge the scale of this challenge, open up a public debate about its implications and, above all, engage our imaginations in developing a way forward.