We need a digital policing strategy before we talk about surveillance and safeguards

I’m starting to think “privacy” is a really crap way to argue against intrusive government policy such as the [Draft] Communications Data Bill announced in today’s Queen’s Speech. Yes, I really do care for my...

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I’m starting to think “privacy” is a really crap way to argue against intrusive government policy such as the [Draft] Communications Data Bill announced in today’s Queen’s Speech.

Yes, I really do care for my privacy and right to live my life free from state intrusion; unless, of course, there are good reasons for that intrusion. 

And I mean good reasons such as multiple eyewitnesses making statements that they saw me tearing off the balaclava as I dashed away from the bank; not reasons along the lines of “people who rob banks also use the internet, so we have to monitor everything on the internet to catch the bank robbers.”

You see “privacy” is a word that’s about as meaningful in a debate as “safeguards”: people demand privacy, the government offers safeguards.

And so I’ve decided to ask for neither.

Instead I want to see a comprehensive digital policing strategy before any of the measures being bandied around in respect to communications surveillance hit the statute books.

Not one of the police officers I spoke to over the last couple of years has bemoaned a lack of capability. Instead they talk along the lines of “getting to grips” with an “ecosystem” that’s technically challenging and - at times - hard to comprehend for a large majority of detectives.

Cyber Detectives

And so, therefore, it might not be a bad idea to create a team of cyber detectives - fully warranted officers tasked with policing online communities in a similar manner to community-focussed policing initiatives in the physical world.

Police forces might need to tweak their recruitment and career options in order to get the necessary skills into police forces, but I would rather the government spends a few billion pounds on recruiting and training specialist officers whose full time role is to know what’s going on in the public areas of the internet than on a mass snooping and surveillance system that will do nothing more than line the pockets of ISPs and equipment providers.

In fact I’d go further.  I wouldn’t mind too much if trained officers worked undercover amongst online communities.  But then I would like to see some safeguards; to ensure undercover officers are focussing their efforts on the darker online communities rather than political activists or bloggers who criticise local councils.

But the problem, relayed to me by one senior serving officer who doesn’t want to be named, is that today Britain’s forces are shackled from doing either.  Simply entering a public internet relay chat (IRC) room in order to engage with others requires similar paperwork to putting an officer under cover, claimed my contact. This, if true, just seems crazy.

For the internet we need a comprehensive top level strategy setting out how to police the internet. Public online spaces are to my mind no different to streets, parks and shopping malls.  I don’t see a problem with plain clothes officers on the street. Similarly, I don’t take issue with monitoring publicly-available data published online.

I know many privacy advocates do take issue with social media monitoring; there’s obviously lots to debate and I guess a lot depends on whether forces make sensible decisions on how they use the data gathered.

If someone hell bent on mayhem used a public channel to rally support for riotous disorder, I expect the authorities to have detected this and planned accordingly to prevent serious public disorder.  When we talk about civil liberties we must not forget how liberating it is to be able to walk down one’s street 365 days a year without running the gauntlet of rioters’, hell bent on damage and destruction.

Community

Community police chiefs talk not just about crime, crime prevention and apprehending criminals.  They talk about public reassurance and relationships.  And a lot of work has gone into understanding how a police presence on the streets can reassure - or worry - residents.  Sometimes something as simple as wearing a fluorescent jacket has the effect of worrying residents, making them feel less safe; whereas a patrol without jackets makes these very same residents feel reassured and protected.

Similar research needs to take place in cyberspace.  How can a police presence of some sort make online communities feel safer - reassured that irresponsible, anti-social or illegal behaviour will be punished in some way whilst respecting the community as a whole and not intruding on its natural order?

How can cyber detectives build relationships with community members so that they can call on the community for help tackling serious crime? 

Again, in real life, community police officers talk a lot about judgement and taking appropriate action.  A ticking off or turning a blind eye is sometimes appropriate, and these types of judgement calls depend not on what’s written in law or police manuals but on understanding the community being policed.  What’s appropriate for Nottingham may not work in Liverpool, Birmingham or Belfast; similarly what’s appropriate on Twitter might differ in some anon hangouts.

We need to treat the internet like a space that can be policed.  A place where traditional detective methods can be modified to work in cyber space; a place home to a community of people like any other, who just happen to be connected via the tools they use rather than where they live. 

The vast majority of community police officers don’t first jump to the conclusion they need to put a bug in every house so they know what’s going down on their patch; the majority find ways to get to know who’s who and what’s going on without losing trust, building relationships that make consensual policing possible. 

In the real world, surveillance and other intrusive methods are there as a last resort; but without a comprehensive digital policing strategy surveillance will be a first resort for those tasked with making the internet seem a bit safer.