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CC Stephen Kavanagh Blog: Our world has gone digital. January 2017

25 Jan 2017

Our world has gone digital.  Smartphones are everywhere and have overtaken computers as the most popular way we access the internet. The world has changed, and 93% of adults in the UK now own a mobile phone compared with 36% in 2000. 

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The spread of technology into virtually every sphere of our modern lives means that digital evidence is now available at almost every conceivable crime scene. Evidence can include smartphone footage of disorder in a public place, a social media trail relating to a missing person, or a record of which devices connected to the wi-fi router at a property that has been burgled. The pace of change in our lives and how crimes are taking place is not slowing down with the volume of data globally set to grow tenfold from 2013 to 2020. The “Internet of Things” is another dimension for us to consider, creating an explosion in machine to machine communication that has already exposed new vulnerabilities as seen by the cyber attack that briefly disabled Netflix, Twitter and other major sites last autumn. Policing is already dealing with drones and encrypted messaging apps on which children have been groomed and we will soon be faced with investigating autonomous vehicle collisions and smart cities.

However, in policing we are by and large still using traditional operating models and tactics to address a transformational challenge that is as great as any we have experienced since the foundation of the Metropolitan Police Service in 1829. Undoubtedly digital investigations are still viewed as a niche or specialism in some forces. Capabilities exist and have been enhanced in recent years but are often left siloed and are insufficiently accessible to frontline officers. We must work hard to change these approaches. It is good to see that the Office for National Statistics has started tracking reports of online crime alongside traditional offences. The first fruits of that exercise were released in July. The findings were striking and important if government and policing are to reduce harm in our communities. It revealed 5.8m online fraud and computer misuse offences that had not previously been captured centrally, compared to 6.3m ‘traditional’ offences. Worryingly the ONS figures did not include crimes against businesses or online abuse such as stalking, harassment, revenge porn, sexting or grooming. These crime types cause significant and lasting harm to victims and we know are significantly under-reported. From early next year these numbers will be included in the quarterly crime statistics and trends will be very clear which will no doubt be the focus of further scrutiny.

In recent years police forces have gone through significant change as a result of austerity. The need to reduce costs has focused minds but in some places encouraged a retrenchment into perceived ‘core business’ as a way of managing demand. There has been considerable activity across forces to respond to changing crime types and understanding of threat, harm and vulnerability but we need to work more effectively with the College of Policing on new initiatives to improve evaluation of best practice. As HMIC recognised, it is unrealistic to assume that individual forces can address the scale and complexity of digital transformation on their own.

Consistency for victims is vital because the internet challenges our existing geographical structure of policing and concepts of social space, victimhood and crime types. A fraudster or hacker can target multiple victims in numerous locations from the comfort of their bedroom. Evidence can exist in multiple jurisdictions and formats but needs to be brought together into one digital case file for presentation at court. And we need to facilitate the same tools that we all use in our everyday lives to ensure that we give a better service to the public, whether in contacting the police, providing advice, preventing crime and giving guidance and reassurance or harnessing investigative leads.

This is where the leadership role of the NPCC digital policing portfolio that I chair, comes in. Since establishing the portfolio in April we have brought together the three NPCC digital programmes that will set the strategy for digital policing nationally, regionally and locally.

The Digital Public Contact programme provides a simple and reliable digital contact service between the public and the police. It’s about improving digital interaction with the public and providing a singular portal to access policing services.

Digital Investigation and Intelligence is focused on improving digital skills, knowledge and capabilities in order to better protect the public in a society that is becoming increasingly digital and Digital First looks at integrating digitised policing into the reformed Criminal Justice System, to deliver the best service to the public

We have already mapped the landscape of force readiness for this work and have launched a set of pilot projects in forces to act as proof of concepts of new tools, skills and ways of working around such issues as digital forensics, online stalking and harassment and hate crime. We are working hard to build an understanding of the scale of the challenge in order to influence the Home Office and Police Reform and Transformation Board. We are building a network of contacts across forces that we can help to support and encourage digital transformation.

The value of this work will be judged by whether it makes a difference to frontline officers, and whether victims experience a better service as a result. Capturing and sharing good practice is essential, such as the innovative work that Staffordshire have carried out to improve triage of digital forensic examination at crime scenes, Gloucestershire’s employment of Digital Media Investigators in the force control room to identify early opportunities for evidence capture, or Derbyshire’s amazing Digital PCSO providing a visible reassuring police presence on social media. Such initiatives can make a real operational impact but this is limited if the service’s people, systems, and processes are not aligned to support and encourage such innovation.

Over the coming months we will be increasing the pace of such digital transformation activity in forces. We’ll be trialling new capabilities such as app based knowledge on initial investigative steps for officers arriving at the scene, better tools to triage digital evidence and data exploitation tools to link different data sets. We will be setting up a new centre to help harness research and development opportunities within industry and academia, and bringing greater coherence to the development and deployment of new capabilities. And we will be working intensively with forces on shaping their own transformation activity and sharing emerging good practice. Policing will look different as a result of this transformation but the essential Peelian purpose of policing; to prevent and detect crime and protect the public, will still endure