How digital tech will change how we fight crime

Equipping police officers with new digital technologies will help prevent crime

Criminals are harnessing digital technology to expand the reach and increase the impact of their crimes. But advances in technology also present law enforcement agencies with an enormous opportunity to transform how they tackle crime. Whilst the Home Office’s Modern Crime Prevention Strategy highlights the crucial role that technology will play in the future of the modern crime prevention, there is still a considerable amount more that we can do to enable our police forces to fight crime effectively and reduce their costs.   

Crime has Gone Digital

The nature of crime is clearly changing. Recent ONS figures highlighted that more traditional crimes, such as burglary, theft, and street violence have dropped dramatically over the past couple of decades, but technology-enabled enable crimes such as fraud and cyber-crime are increasing exponentially. And the threat is all the harder to deal with since perpetrators of these new types of crime can launch asymmetric attacks from anywhere in the world.    

This presents a unique challenge to law enforcement agencies and emphasises the critical importance of equipping police forces for modern crime prevention. Only by working closely with the tech industry can the Government and police hope to combat this evolving new threat more effectively. 

What the Government Says

The Home Office’s Modern Crime Prevention Strategy, announced by Theresa May in March 2016, highlighted the crucial role that technology will play in the future of the modern crime prevention. The penultimate chapter of the Strategy focusses on how current and emerging technologies can be leveraged to prevent crimes across the spectrum. It describes these technologies as “tools that are critical to successfully preventing crime.” And it is only through the complete incorporation of technological advances and the greater use of data analytics, that law enforcement, businesses, academia and the public can better work together to prevent crime. 

Digital for the Forces

In order to meet the objectives of the Strategy, modern technologies that improve efficiency should be adopted and become the standard for police forces, and also for businesses and citizens alike, so they can protect themselves.   

Online Crime Reporting

Online crime reporting and the digitalisation of CCTV footage has the potential to transform policing, and in doing so deter future criminals. The UK already has an online reporting portal which can be a launch-pad to revolutionise how crime is reported in the UK. Forces should be encouraged to work with industry to develop and promote the use of straightforward, multi-channel reporting tools. 

Adopting new technology which would allow businesses to submit digital evidence online would generate savings of £130m a year in police time spent on low-level crimes,   including allowing investigations to start immediately and removing the need to collect physical media. West Midlands Police Force has already saved itself over £800K by implementing a Facewatch CCTV system that could speed up investigations by 14-21 days.   

Live Streaming

The digitalisation of video footage also allows for the live streaming of CCTV footage into control rooms and alarm monitoring stations. This would make verification of alarms far easier and cheaper. techUK estimates that dispatching officers to false alarms cost the police and fire services a combined £72m last year.  This could be dramatically reduced if video footage was live-streamed to allow for visual verification.

This would also improve officer safety, as situational awareness would be markedly increased. For example, the ability to view CCTV footage remotely saved lives during the Porte de Vincennes siege in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack in France in 2015.   

Security and Identity Tools

The Strategy from the Home Office recognises that moving many aspects of our lives online “has far-reaching implications for our identity, for the ‘value’ associated with it and how we protect it.” But given the dramatic rise in cyber-crime and online fraud, this sole mention of ‘identity’ severely underplays the potential of identity-orientated technology solutions to transform crime prevention.   

Identity verification and management tools could significantly aid crime prevention and ease the burden on the police. This can range from digitisation of driving licences to proof of age on smartphones to digital IDs to age verification online.   

However, these measures will only work if the public take responsibility for adopting them. This is why, as well as developing the services, the Home Office and police forces should develop a campaign to increase uptake and understanding of the benefit. 

Adoption of the Cloud

With data being generated in ever larger quantities, cloud computing and data analytics are going to be integral for crime prevention and policing. Adopting the cloud will allow forces to tackle their growing data storage problem in an affordable and scalable way. Once that data is stored in the cloud, analytic tools will be able to provide real-time insights that mean the forces are better informed and officers will be able to use advanced mobile applications on the go.   

Digital Skills in Policing

To fully benefit from the new technology solutions, it is critical that police officers have the requisite digital skills to be effective. The Home Office Strategy does acknowledge the growing significance that digital sources play in police investigations and it commits the Home Office to use money from the Police Transformation Fund to “enable the Digital Investigation and Intelligence (DII) programme to further develop police capability in relation to the skills and technology required to effectively police a digital age and protect victims of digital crime.”  

With over 100,000 police officers in the country, police forces should adopt a three-tiered approach to upskilling:   

  • Run a national training scheme, accredited by the College of Policing, to give all officers a rudimentary understanding
  • Create a digital tool kit, accessible via handheld devices, which would explain in an easily digestible format the various procedures for dealing with digital evidence
  • Establish a framework for policing to access external skills and capabilities for specialist operations.

Smarter Procurement

It is crucial that law enforcement agencies and relevant stakeholders are able to procure the technology they need to meet the aims of the Home Office’s Strategy. While there are several mechanisms designed to reduce administrative burden, there are still challenges that need to be overcome.   

The Government must focus on simple, easy and accessible purchasing. Initiatives such as G-Cloud and Contracts Finder have been welcomed by industry. But a techUK survey of 171 SMEs this year found that one of the top barrier for SMEs accessing the public sector market still is onerous procurement processes. So it is clear that more needs to be done to incentivise the public sector to utilise the tools, raise supplier awareness of them, and to make them user friendly and easy to use. A smarter approach to procurement is one way of making sure that Government and police forces are better able to access innovation. 

The Blue Lights will Burn Brighter   

Adoption of modern technology is necessary for tackling modern crime, but not sufficient. As the Home Office strategy highlighted, to enable our crime-fighters to do the very best job, we need to provide them with the skills, as well as the tools to better serve UK citizens. 

Image Credit: Dmitry Kalinovsky / Shutterstock

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Henry Rex is Programme Manager for Justice and Emergency Services at techUK, the trade body for the UK’s tech industry.