16 Jan 2023
by Chris Whitehouse

Harnessing data to protect welfare of the Thin Blue Online (Guest blog by Collaboraite)

Guest blog by Chris Whitehouse, Customer Experience Director at Collaboraite #NatSec2023

Some of the most exciting moments of my career in policing was when I identified identifying new online intelligence. There would be a moment when I thought to myself “this is big and right now only I know this”. Of course, I would capture the intelligence and push it through into the intelligence cycle as quickly as possible (a problem shared…) but that fleeting moment of being in it alone always gave me a buzz. However, at no point did I stop and consider the risks associated with 'being in it alone' when deployed online. Who had my back? 

The opportunities and benefits of using intelligence and evidence gathered online are well known, however those gathering this data are in a unique situation. For many, conducting Investigations online is their only interaction with live, unassessed and often unpredictable data. All from the 'safety' of their machine. They will deploy, alone, to conduct research online without knowing what they will be faced with as they review the content of their searching. 

While working in Counter Terrorism Policing I clearly recall conducting an innocuous trace of a telephone number that led to results that were far from innocuous. I was presented with graphic war zone images. Although experienced in viewing this type of material I wasn't expecting it on this occasion and, as a reflex, closed my browser down, I was not in the frame of mind to view that material and could have lost vital intelligence. You are only a mouse click or tap on a screen away from seeing content online that could be detrimental to your welfare.

It is not uncommon for this material to bear no operational relevance to your task and as such you don't capture any content and your interaction with this remains only known to yourself. This process can be repeated multiple times within a single day's research. What impact is this hidden exposure having on an investigator’s welfare? I'm not sure we know. 

Further to this, online Investigation is certainly no longer the domain of specialist teams and is, rightly, being conducted by many different teams as part of daily business. Consider the surroundings of those conducting this research. They are unlikely to be in a dedicated private space and a lot more likely to be in an open plan office or even working at home. Now consider the wider impact of stumbling across graphic content online. Not only do we need to consider the Investigator themselves, but those within eye or ear shot (the sounds can often be most haunting) of their desk or even the kitchen table. I recently spoke to a team who had resorted to covering up the window within a door due to staff inadvertently seeing online content as they approached the office. 

So, who had my back? My line manager certainly did and if I was to ever flag anything to them I would receive all the support the organisation could throw at me, something I was passionate about continuing when I led a III Team. Blue Light Champions, Mental Health First Aiders and schemes such as the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) continue to provide fantastic welfare support when approached.                                     

However, data should be used for preventative welfare assistance at the point of exposure. Harnessing data also provides the opportunity for a more informed approach to wrap around support by providing insight into touch points with online content of welfare concern.

We could be using purpose-built tools to immediately hide content at the tap of a button, without losing intelligence or evidence. Going one step further, hiding content should result in the flagging of risk webpages, providing a crowd sourced dataset that warns law enforcement colleagues about the content they are about to view. Providing Law Enforcement with the opportunity to do what they do best, work together to support each other.

Data could be used to automatically inform line managers and SPOCs about the material their team has been exposed to online, taking the onus away from self-referral. This allows for informed intervention and support, even for those who experience the "slow drip drip" (as described to me recently) impact of exposure to graphic content. 

The online space is forever changing; however, law enforcement will always find itself in some of the darkest places online, often inadvertently. Advancements in data science need to be used to support those conducting this work by providing online ‘PPE’ when they are deployed in this space.

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Chris Whitehouse

Chris Whitehouse

Customer Experience Director, Collaboraite