Friday 19 July 2019

Policing the digital world

According to Peter Hinssen, digital is the new normal. Technological developments such as social media, drones, bitcoin, and the Internet of Things among others are evolving rapidly, barely giving society the time to adapt, both socially and culturally, to the characteristics of this technology, to examine its effectiveness and to regulate its use. As part of our society and as the custodian of our security, the police as an organisation must also find its place in this digital era. An endeavour that is far from evident, as we will see…

While the police uses technology, it finds it difficult as an organisation to adapt to the rapid changes. Compared with other organisations, the police service is lagging behind when it comes to integrating such techniques as big data analysis, mobile devices and social media in its work processes.

Citizens use social media, the Internet and apps to communicate. We make an appointment with our GP online, order our groceries online… Contacting the police, as citizens, using our normal communication pattern, is often less straightforward. Not every police zone can be reached digitally, and we often find it difficult to understand which Twitter or Facebook account to use.

In terms of crime fighting, a survey and a study by Belgian broadcaster, Radio 1, revealed that a total of 3,524 CCTV cameras have been installed in public space in Flanders. They were either purchased by the local police force or the municipality. Bear in mind, however, that cameras as such are not exactly ‘new’ technology at this point. If we take the implementation of more recent resources into account, then it becomes clear that a number of ‘early adopters’ have invested in all kinds of technology, such as bodycams, mobile office, drones and so on. The majority of the Belgian local zones, however, have no access to these resources, and neither does the federal police.

Imagine if the police were to have all kinds of resources at its disposal in the near future, would this then constitute an effective resource to fight crime? Could the police in that case prevent and predict everything, like in the film Minority Report? The proven effectiveness of technology has been the subject of much debate between believers and non-believers, largely for lack of research. Studies exist about the impact of cameras. And these do actually have an effect on crime if they are used in the right way. Therein lies the nub of the problem, however. Cameras are only effective when combined with live supervision – which is hardly ever the case – and when the images are used to direct teams on the streets. They are of very little use on the preventative level, even though they are still touted and sold as such. ANPR cameras are no different. While the technology does work, it is obviously dependent on the man behind the machine, who must be capable of processing the multitude of data.

The use of technology is still irreversibly linked with the right to privacy. Privacy proponents state that every citizen should have the right to be forgotten. Although I am convinced that the police service respects privacy and personal data, the systems themselves must, however, be protected against improper use. An adapted legal framework, in accordance with today’s standards, would be more than welcome in this framework.

This brings us to our next point. Technology creates solutions, but also generates crime. According to FCCU figures, 50% of all crime is online crime nowadays. Companies and services increasingly use the Internet, which in turn fosters ICT dependency, making citizens and companies more susceptible to the bad intentions of cybercriminals. Unfortunately, citizens are not always careful when it comes to protecting their personal data, leaving their virtual door wide open as it were. Empowerment and awareness-raising campaigns need to be stepped up. The police also needs to rethink itself, in order to keep up with new technology and new forms of crime. The consequences for the police profession are equally considerable. Retraining, the insourcing of IT specialists and the technological resources to tackle this will all be crucial.

The adoption and use of digital instruments by the police will take time, in other words. Time to achieve the potential integration thereof in our society, to focus on the execution of the related legislation and to revise the organisation of the police service.