Anyone needing any evidence of the impact that data is having on policing would do well to refer to Metropolitan Police Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick’s annual security lecture at the think tank RUSI back in February. The Commissioner illustrated the challenge faced by contemporary investigations from the volume and complexity of data, drawing contrast between the 4TB of data seized in total during the investigations into the 7/7 London bombings in 2005 and 61TB of data seized at a single scene during a less complex 2018 terrorism investigation. She stated “it is very rare for any investigation now not to require ingestion and assessment of high volumes of digital and other forensic material from a wide variety of sources, including accessing personal data stored in a multiplicity of locations.”
We are all familiar with the projected growth in data arising from services linked to the uptake of cloud, 5G, IoT and other technologies, and which will see an explosion in the volume, variety and velocity of data types. These mean that the trends described by the Commissioner are bound to accelerate.
Equally it is clear that the current infrastructure for the police as well as the wider criminal justice system is not currently able to cope with existing, never mind anticipated data trends. Problems associated with digital forensic access to data, interpretation and disclosure of data have been extensively described. Which means that access to specialist skills to understand, interpret and analyse data must be an increasing part of the police service’s armoury. Indeed Cressida Dick argued strongly for the police to “use tech proportionately to speed up how we – human officers - solve and prevent crime, and increase our chances of stopping the harm that we would be criticised for not stopping”.
There is much to do if the police service is to fulfil this ambition. A decade of austerity has compounded existing skills gaps, particularly when analysts were in many cases deemed non-frontline operational roles that could be sacrificed in order to achieve cash savings. The well-publicised uplift in officer numbers announced last year is a potential opportunity to attract and nurture new skills.
Last year the Royal Society identified significant and growing demand across the economy for data skills. This is both a challenge and an opportunity, as it means that there is much to be learned from other examples of existing good practice:
- The Office for National Statistics has been running a data science campus on behalf of government for a number of years, which has built relationships with academia and industry, developed and delivered training and mentoring and created a network for data scientists across government to share skills and collaborate
- The Alan Turing Institute, the UK centre for data science, has many collaborative programmes looking at building data science capability across numerous policy areas, including defence and security
- Nesta, national centre for innovation, has worked for several years looking at innovative practice in data analytics including police forces such as West Midlands, Essex and Avon and Somerset
- There are numerous examples of industry working to share skills and experience, many of which are being co-ordinated through ACE, the accelerated capability environment established by the Home Office
These and other examples mean there is lots of potential for collaboration and cross fertilisation of skills and knowledge in a fast growing and developing sector. As a starting point TRACER, a multi-agency team based in the National Crime Agency that looks at threats, opportunities and innovation around digital communications, is working with the National Analysts Working Group to support the establishment of a national data analysis community of practice, to act as a focal point for data practitioners across law enforcement to come together in order to collaborate, develop skills, and link into some of the examples of good practice described above. We are looking to use this community as a way of focusing on how we develop the good practice that already exists in pockets, and to influence the College of Policing and National Police Chiefs’ Council on how to embed data skills within the service more generally. We look forward to working with techUK members on addressing this challenge.
Bio: Giles Herdale is an independent contractor and policy advisor with long experience of working on digital investigation and intelligence analysis in both the public and private sectors. He is currently working with TRACER, a multi-agency team established in the National Crime Agency to work on behalf of the law enforcement and intelligence community to identify digital threats and opportunities and sponsor innovation to address these.