A policeman’s lot is not a happy one

With issues around data, cyber security and the slow adoption of basic technology, Chris Wright, account director at UKCloud, looks at how cloud can empower the police without compromising their reputation.

Anyone reading the news over the past few years will know that the police forces are feeling the squeeze. Research has shown that almost a 20% decrease in real-world funding has occurred between 2010 and 2017. In practical terms, this means fewer front-line officers on the ground, less training, and smaller salaries — making it difficult to encourage potential applicants into the workforce.

Underpinned by an unsettling landscape of increasing gang-related crime, homicide and theft, a police officer’s job description now entails tackling the collective troubles of a nation on high terror alert. The service relies on public funding to serve and protect citizens but, when teams are heavily depleted, staff are leaving in mass, and the recruitment funnel is empty, how can the police deliver on these promises?

Under enormous pressure to deliver results and save lives, human error is unavoidable in some situations. Take Wokingham council as a recent example: one member of staff accidentally forwarded details of a child sexual abuse victim to their attacker – twice. Simple digital slip-ups, often made under pressure, can be remedied in most situations. But cases handling sensitive information relating to abuse and crime like this mean tiny mistakes can result in catastrophic consequences for all involved.

That throws the recent news stories that police forces across the UK have been responsible for thousands of data breaches over the past few years into a different light; something needs to change if the police’s cyber security and online processes are to improve. It’s a perfect storm for data issues; the data is incredibly important, funding and staff numbers have fallen in recent years, and the nature of police work means that the information needs to be accessed and acted on as quickly as possible.

Personal data kept under digital lock and key

Improving services in this kind of climate isn’t an easy task and there needs to be an intelligent use of technology – not just an increase in resource – if change is going to be enacted. But with the UK police force holding extremely sensitive data, from DNA through to people’s entire criminal history, there is a demand for that improvement to happen fast. At the very least, police data should be stored securely, centralised, and regulated under two-factor authentication.

When it comes to technology procurement, public sector bodies battle with lengthy procedures where sign-off is often delayed and passes through varying levels of bureaucracy. What this means for blue light services in particular is the slow adoption of what we now consider relatively basic technology, such as cloud services and, increasingly, machine-learning. These obstacles come as no surprise as it’s taxpayer money in question.

It’s apparent, though, that lack of funding has prevented the level of progress citizens would expect in 2019. It’s a shame because innovations in machine-learning, artificial intelligence, and cloud platforms are providing new forms of identification, like voice recognition, proving that if public sector bodies intelligently select the right technologies, arduous procurement processes are worth the hassle in the long-run.

Rolling out the new GPS tagging system is another example of how the government is looking to invest in technology that will alleviate some of the enormous pressure on staff. However, this comes with the additional risk of the information falling into the wrong hands. For example, an ex-gang member’s location could be widely leaked by accident — potentially rendering them a target. It’s concerns like these that hold back progress and require heightened security and data storage facilities.

Information overload: reducing cost and workload

With staffing and resource shortages, what needs to be focused on is what can be achieved by investing in the right technologies, and what will support front-line staff. In the short term, the public sector needs to prioritise safeguarding important data and making it accessible to the right people, for the right reasons.

Digitising paper-based processes, such as fingerprint storage and statements, is already underway in many departments. Still, the real issue is how this information is being handled and stored. Officers are confronted with overwhelmingly large amounts of data, with limited staff resource to make sense of it. High-profile trials collapsing has meant that forces are under pressure to analyse copious amounts of information at speed. Not only this, but concerns around the data privacy of victims slows down the process and can also result in unequal access to justice in some cases.

Database security: partner with the right providers

Police databases are crucial to help identify criminals and track behaviours. In London, reports reveal that the Metropolitan police can request access to social media, web browsing activity, instant messages, location data, emails, deleted data, audio files apps and more – for up to 100 years. In this case, an invasion of privacy might be for the greater good, but this level of surveillance gives police a huge amount of responsibility to safeguard the information.

The accidental leaking of the Metropolitan Police’s ‘Gang Matrix’ list is another example of how mishandling this data can compromise the safety of those named; home addresses and contact details should never be published under any circumstances. To combat this, the government needs to dedicate its limited funding to technology that will support the police force amid these troubling conditions. What would really benefit front-line officers would be DNA databases for storing biometric data like fingerprints, retina scans, and voice authentication.

This is where the value of partnering with the right localised cloud service provider becomes most apparent – a team of experts to help lift the heavy load of the police force, enhancing the nation’s security. In the current climate of political uncertainty, localised and hyper-secure storage of data is a priority. Police forces can’t continue to suffer a further tarnished reputation in light of another data breach. It’s the versatility of cloud technology that will enable the police to maintain extensive databases and integrate the tools they so desperately require.