Embedding and operationalising digital ethics in UK policing
Digital Ethics in UK policing has more focus than ever before, with ethics featuring in the National Policing Digital Strategy 2020-2030, and evidence of industry, academics and policing organisations working together emerging in the last few years.
Nevertheless, there is not a consistent approach to managing ethical considerations of data and technology across UK forces, and even the forces that are ahead of the curve have still not embedded and operationalised digital ethics into their organisations and ways of working.
To develop an understanding of UK policing’s levels of digital ethics maturity, Sopra Steria begun a research project, and in 2021 has spoken to forces up and down the country about the challenges they face. Our findings show five clear themes common across the forces we interviewed.
The importance of public trust in police forces to deliver more effective services has been widely written about. Our research also showed that public trust in police forces is heavily influenced by the perception the public have of the police’s use of technology, as evidenced in particular by media articles and reports. Common misconceptions include a belief that the police have access to advanced technology resources, and that reduced officer presence on the street means fundamental policing work is not being done. This gap between perception and reality is one of the underlying causes of public fear and mistrust of the police.
Value in data sharing
There is a general lack of data sharing within and between forces, as well as with external organisations, and there is little protocol and guidance to allow for easier and ethical methods of data sharing that would enable not only better policing but better delivery of public services more broadly across agencies. Agencies, as well as the forces themselves, can use a variety of different data systems, and while it is possible for these systems to interact, having multiple entry points leaves more possibility for error and the quality of data is impacted. All six of the forces we spoke to are now making a move to consolidate their systems, and some forces are now looking into giving external agencies access to their system in order to address this challenge.
Bias in data, tools and technology
The challenge that unintended bias in data and technologies used by police presents is well documented, and forces participating in our research showed high levels of awareness of these issues. However, these forces generally felt it was a not a question of whether or not to use certain data and technologies, but when. This viewpoint doesn’t address some of the bigger ethical risks, such as bias in predictive policing algorithms. Overall, there is an inconsistent approach to examining potential bias in policing tools and technologies, with specific technologies getting a lot of focus and others less.
Ethical and digital capability
One of the biggest challenges identified in our research is the lack of digital ethics knowledge, expertise, and governance within forces. While ethics committees are becoming more common, there is a lack of specific knowledge of data and technology ethics issues that presents a blind spot. Furthermore, there is a challenge to operationalise ethics, bringing the work of the committees into critical functions in policing, such as procurement and commissioning, where technology buying occurs.
National policy, tools and support
The policing Code of Ethics and its use in the National Decision Making Model provide the main guidance for forces’ management of ethics. However, these do not explicitly provide guidance for forces on digital or data ethics issues. Our research participants described the need for national guidance on digital ethics issues. Furthermore, there is currently no national approach to digital ethics benchmarking, auditing or reporting. HMIC, the main policing auditing body, does not currently review forces’ approach to managing digital ethics issues.
For more on our findings, in our full market report, which is available here. We discussed this research and much more at this year’s techUK Digital Ethics Summit. where Dr. Kevin Macnish, Sopra Steria’s Digital Ethics Consulting Manager, and author of The Ethics of Surveillance: an introduction (Routledge 2018) joined a plenary session on 'Equipping police forces to use tech ethically', a video of this session will be available shortly.