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Strategic Review of Policing: Police tech needs better ethical scrutiny

The Strategic Review of Policing confirms the central role that tech will be playing going forward, but warns of the need for greater ethical scrutiny to ensure public trust

The UK’s “largely analogue police service” needs a major tech update to deal with proliferation of digitally enabled crime, but new technologies also need much better scrutiny, according to the Strategic review of policing in England and Wales.

According to the 192-page review, while the internet has created new opportunities for crime and harm to take place – particularly with regards to computer misuse offences, fraud and child sexual abuse – police in the UK lack the modern technology needed to deal with this “explosive” shift.

Launched by the Police Foundation think tank in September 2019 and chaired by Michael Barber, the Strategic review of policing set out to examine how crime and other threats to public safety are changing, as well as assess the ability of police to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

While the review focuses on policing as a whole – noting the need for “root and branch reform” to address the current crisis in public confidence – a number of its 56 recommendations deal specifically with the role of technology.

The importance of technology to the police going forward was also highlighted ahead of the review’s launch by policing minister Kit Malthouse, who said during a webinar that the acquisition and use of digital technologies will be a major priority.

“Policing is an information business, and yet too often police technology is outdated and cumbersome, causing frustration to the officers and staff who use it, and letting down the public who get a poorer service as a result,” said the review, adding that less than half of officers were satisfied with their current IT provision in some 70% of police forces.

“The degree to which public safety is shaped by the digital environment will only increase. In the years ahead, we will see exponential growth in processing power, the volume and variety of data and the degree of connectivity between devices. Ever more information will flow across national boundaries, much of it generated by machine-to-machine communication.

“As more and more human activity takes place online, we will become more exposed to internet crime. In particular, the rise of smart sensors, wearable tech and the internet of things will create new opportunities for cyber crime.”

Better scrutiny of new technologies

Although the review clearly outlines the need for greater investment in new technologies, it added that police will also need to be mindful of legitimacy as they operate artificial intelligence (AI)-powered systems, paying particular attention to striking the correct balance between people’s safety and privacy.

According to NPCC chief scientific adviser Paul Taylor, UK police do not currently have the resources to properly scrutinise their deployments of new technologies, which can create friction between police forces and private suppliers over conflicting interests.

“To be able to sufficiently scrutinise these new technologies and all the permutations, and to be able to 100% tell you what they are and aren’t doing, requires a level of resource that we simply do not have – the amount of testing and testing and testing one would need is just not there,” he told the Home Affairs and Justice Committee in November 2021.

“If I turn around to industry and say, ‘I’m going to hold you responsible’, they will then want to do a level of testing that probably makes investment into that technology not viable anymore; not an interesting product for them to engage into.

“There’s a tension there [because] we don’t want to stifle the market by saying that you have to do all of this [testing], but equally, of course, we need them to do it, and so that’s a real challenge for us.”

Speaking to the same committee in October 2021, Karen Yeung – an Interdisciplinary Professorial Fellow in Law, Ethics and Informatics at Birmingham Law School – said a key issue with police deployments of new technologies is that authorities have started using them “just because we can…without clear evidence” about their efficacy or impacts.

For example, on the development of crime prediction tools – such as the Met Police Gangs Matrix or Durham Constabulary’s Harm Assessment Risk Tool (Hart) – Yeung noted the process “very unrigorous”, with historic arrest data being used a proxy for who is likely to commit a crime.

To achieve better tech scrutiny, the review recommended that the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners (APPC) and the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) should establish an independent National Commission for Police Technology Ethics to consider and advise on new technologies being introduced to policing.

“Police forces and law enforcement agencies should work with the centre on a voluntary basis, but a public register of all police technology projects should be kept, indicating each project’s referral/approval status,” it said, adding the work of this commission should be informed by both a “standing citizens panel” on police tech and “a programme of research, commissioned by the College of Policing, to better understand how police personnel make technologically augmented decisions”.

“We believe a commitment to this kind of rigorous external, expert scrutiny and challenge by non-partisan bodies, representing the public interest, can go some way to establishing police trustworthiness in this fast-developing field,” it added.

To deal with wider issues of legitimacy and public confidence, the review claimed that on top of independent ethical scrutiny of tech, the situation can be helped by “reducing the use of the stop and search power…addressing negative internal cultures and improving workforce diversity”.

Other tech-related recommendations included increasing government investment over the course of the next two Spending Reviews “to enable a significant upgrade of police IT”; developing a common set of IT standards to be applied across the country; and prioritising the modernisation of the Police National Computer (PNC) and the Police National Database (PND) within the Home Office.

The review also outlined the need for earmarked national funds to support police priorities, including in crime prevention, counter-terrorism, learning and development, and technology.  

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