Communications data has long been a vital tool for Police forces; wiretapping was first used by US law enforcement in the 1890s, not long after Graham Alexander Bell’s 1876 patent for the telephone. In the UK today, the recent “snooper’s charter” (or, more formally, the Investigatory Powers Act 2016), amongst other more controversial powers, consolidates previous powers for law enforcement organisations to access communications data and intercept phone calls.
Previous reviews  have highlighted the importance of this type of information in serious or complex investigations, but at local and neighbourhood policing level, more intrusive powers are often not necessary, proportionate or available to officers when dealing with issues on the ground. There are, however, clear cases in which neighbourhood police teams could benefit from improved tools, for example: improving despatch, finding stolen phones or wanted criminals, and providing real-time alerts on restraining order breaches.
Current police tools are often less developed than similar commercial solutions
Commercial applications have in many instances surpassed the solutions used by the police. For example, the Mobile Data Terminals used by the Metropolitan Police are much-maligned by regular officers – unintuitive, regularly out-of-service, and often missing key information so that officers must often contact support agents using the Airwave radio network to get details, then use their own phones to find the location of a call. Compare this to a commercial taxi app, and the difference could not be starker. The environment in which these tools need to operate must also be considered. Like much of the public sector, budget cuts have hit the Police hard; e.g. Leicestershire’s trial of only investigating burglaries at odd-numbered houses. Cost is therefore a major motivator and inhibitor. Additionally, any tools made for the Police must be reliable and robust to almost military levels. Finally, security is paramount; the consequences of criminals or those with malicious intent accessing these systems would have severe consequences.
The challenge, therefore, is how to improve the capabilities of the neighbourhood police, at a lower cost, without sacrificing security or robustness.
Many existing tools should be replaced with augmented commercial solutions
Greater collaboration with the private sector may be a solution for police forces. Recommendations include:
- Partner with any of the multitude of existing app-based transport providers to develop an augmented version of their app, with controllers (instead of customers) inputting calls at various severity levels (instead of pickup requests in various car types)
- Replace in-car terminals with ruggedized commercial smartphones. Whilst this represents a significant initial financial outlay, it also improves flexibility and productivity for the majority of officers without secure mobile email. Improved location data would also increase officer safety
- Similarly, the response to a stolen phone could be improved by a Police-owned app, built on existing “find my phone” apps, integrated into Police systems, improving the chances of locating the thief. Bringing the data in-house would also allow analysis to highlight hot-spots for stolen phones, perhaps indicating prolific thieves.
Reducing costs and commercial viability
Whilst new suppliers would clearly need vetting to ensure they meet security standards, building on existing solutions allows app providers to sell products and services to the country’s police (and potentially other emergency services worldwide), at a profit, whilst still representing a significant saving to the taxpayer.
This also represents an opportunity for Telco operators, who could take on responsibility for carrying data to existing secure systems over their network, provided they are able to demonstrate that their networks were suitably robust and secure. If the existing Airwave network were used, this represents an opportunity for systems integration between the new solutions and the old network (although highly sensitive investigations would need to remain on high classification systems).
There are a wealth of opportunities to improve the utility of the tools to the Police, and indeed the wider emergency services, potentially at a lower cost.
Assuming there is appetite for this change, the initial challenge of prioritising the right options may prove to be one of the hardest.
D. Anderson, “A question of trust”, Crown copyright, 2015
V. Ward, "Police 'only investigate attempted burglaries at even-numbered homes'," The Telegraph, Aug. 5, 2015.