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Longer-term tech investment must support policing reform

Investment in technologies such as facial recognition and artificial intelligence should be introduced to tackle compromises to public safety levels, says report

A longer-term investment strategy around technology should underpin “profound and far-reaching” change, according to the annual assessment of policing in England and Wales.

In his annual report State of policing, chief inspector of constabulary Thomas Winsor said a consistent approach to technology is one of the key actions needed to avoid “unacceptable compromises in quality of service levels of public safety.”

Specific areas of tech investment outlined in the report include body-worn video cameras, fully functional hand-held mobile devices, facial recognition and artificial intelligence.

“These are all things in which police forces must invest for the long term. If they don’t, they are left playing catch-up as offenders intensify and increase their abuse of modern technology to cause harm,” the report noted.

However, various concerns have been raised around the application of some of these technologies in policing. In his annual report, biometrics commissioner Paul Wiles warned that without clear regulation, biometrics technologies could undermine privacy and citizen trust.

On the introduction of data-driven technologies in policing, there are also challenges related to the lack of guidelines.

In addition to trust and privacy-related issues, a Law Society report argued that use of biased or oversimplified data can include discriminatory decisions, shallow understandings of complex issues and a lack of long-term analysis.

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Addressing the lack of integration between police forces and other parts of the criminal justice system was also highlighted in the State of policing report as a key issue that needs long-term investment.

“Lack of integration currently makes it harder for the police to quickly pass vital evidence, such as camera footage, to the Crown Prosecution Service [CPS],” the report said. “This, and other problems with the system, can result in delays, causing victims and witnesses to become disillusioned and withdraw from proceedings.”

A digital transformation strategy is underway at the CPS, that seeks to improve internal efficiency and interactions with external stakeholders, such as the police.

It has introduced an end-to-end digital service to digitise evidence, which is then passed on to the courts, the defence and the judiciary digitally, with interfaces between the relevant systems. However, handling the growing complexity around multimedia evidence has been a challenge.

On online safety, Winsor welcomed the government’s Online Harms whitepaper, and pointed out in the report that regulation for tech companies “cannot come quickly enough”.

“Most children are now more at risk in their own bedrooms than they are on the streets. This type of offending is not just about child sexual abuse and fraud, but radicalisation, harassment and stalking too,” he pointed out, adding companies must be held accountable for internet safety.

“Some of the corporations in question now own and operate what, to many people, have become significant pieces of public infrastructure,” he said. “Their stewardship of these networks and systems should now be subject to appropriately stringent public interest regulation.”

Criminal liability

The report also supported the government’s intentions to introduce criminal liability for senior managers in tech companies allowing harmful materials on their websites.

“Merely fining some of the world’s richest companies for tolerating the presence of harmful material on their websites will not be enough,” said Winsor. “[Creating criminal liability for senior tech executives] should provide for both significant fines and severe personal criminal penalties.

“Long experience in the US shows that, for the directors at the very top of large companies, being faced with losing both their fortunes and their liberty concentrates their minds on their responsibilities like nothing else.”

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