Digital data challenges
Met Head of Digital Intelligence highlights digital data challenges and opportunities
Operating in a world where digital data has transformed our entire culture has brought about unique challenges and
opportunities for the UK’s biggest police forces.
The Met has a workforce of more than 45,000 staff all working in one of the most high-profile capitals in the world,
which is itself a challenging environment. Add the digital challenge into the mix and the result is not for the
In recent years, one of its serious and most high profile challenges has been the threat from complex terrorism cases.
The CT network’s ability to identify, disrupt and prosecute terrorists is increasingly reliant on accessing and exploiting
many forms of digital intelligence and evidence.
As volumes and types of data continue to increase, it is vital that the CT network continues to increase its capacity to
exploit data and keep up with the evolving threat.
As part of the response to this challenge, the National Digital Exploitation Service (NDES) was established within the Met’s Counter Terrorism Command (SO15), with the specific aim of bringing together a team of digital experts and maximising the use of new data sources and technology in support of terrorism investigations.
Det Supt Phil Tomlinson, an SIO with extensive experience working in SO15 was involved in establishing NDES and managed the unit at its inception. He admits that it was challenging to set NDES up during a period of heightened activity but that the benefits outweighed the challenges.
‘There is no doubting that it was extremely challenging, but we learnt a lot very quickly about how to use different types of a data to support investigations. It was also apparent that we could significantly improve our existing capabilities by bringing them alongside each other’
With the success of NDES becoming an integral part of the National CT policing capability, it prompted the Met to task Det Supt Tomlinson with replicating that achievement by setting up a similar structure within the force.
He was appointed as Head of Digital Intelligence Services at the Met Police and admits that one of the biggest challenges facing the force and policing in general is how to pull together the plethora of data opportunities that exist - from communications data, open source and digital forensics to CCTV and ANPR so it can be used evidentially to support an investigation.
‘It’s been a very different kind of challenge. The Met obviously deals with many different types and levels of crimes. It is also set up across many different departments and within those departments are many different teams with their own management structures.
He agrees that the huge volumes of data now available to investigators is both a challenge and an opportunity.
‘The range of opportunities has never been better however, understanding how to acquire that data and make sense of it has also never been harder - so it’s a double edged sword.’
‘Whilst there are many tools on the market that could help us make sense of the data, the real challenge for us is in getting that data into a format where those analytical tools work effectively. It continues to test us because of the amount of time and resources that needs to be invested it in.
CCTV alone has dozens of different formats this can be handed into the police.’
There is now just so much data available from external sources that attempting to make sense of it all is a continuous challenge for officers, particularly with the increasing volumes of App data.
‘A lot of these Apps also have messaging functionality on them’ explains Det Supt Tomlinson
‘As well as being social media platforms - Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook all provide messaging services within the Apps, so people are now communicating with each other in a number of different ways. Gone are the days when people routinely pick up the phone to speak to each other. They are now using multiple platforms and engaging in almost continual conversation.
There are now so many different places where data is stored. It is often spread between different platforms, in different formats and in different countries.’
Supporting investigators to navigate the complexities of the digital challenge is key to success and training continues to play an important role. Knowledge sharing is also at the heart of the Met’s success who set up a service called ‘Metflix’ which provides a series of instructional videos to staff - not just in digital, but in general policing. It has been hailed as a successful resource.
Building on this success, Det Supt Tomlinson, reveals the Met is looking to introduce Training and Guidance Apps that could provide an instant resource to investigators in real-time on the frontline.
‘If an officer is out on the street and they are dealing with a particular investigation and they want to get quick access to advice or guidance, it would make complete sense for them to tap on their App and look at the issue they are looking at and get that advice.
There’s only so much information we can store in our heads so if there is a portal they can access from their devices whether that be their tablets or their phones and get that information in a secure way that’s absolutely the way we should be going.’
The current pandemic has brought about new ways of working with many investigators working from home. The force faced an initial challenge of how to set up secure remote working, which it completed successfully.
Investigators found themselves making more use digital data to identify suspects rather than going and physically searching for and knocking on doors. While this has been very successful, it did have an impact on volumes of applications for data.
‘We found that investigators have been increasingly turning to digital techniques in areas such as identifying wanted or missing people and as result, on some days we experienced a 300% increase in requests for data. I think the pandemic has massively accelerated the use of digital intelligence.’
Looking to the future, Det Supt Tomlinson, is aware of the ongoing digital challenges that all forces face. This includes the ethical and legislative challenges that arise from dealing with new ways of accessing digital data.
‘As new technology comes on board, we need to work out how we can make best use of it in a proper legal framework and be open and transparent about how we are using it.
‘Again, that’s a challenge because the more open we are about using the technology, the less valuable it becomes. If criminals know police are using a particular technique to catch criminals, then naturally they will avoid it. It’s a real risk having to balance to the two and the key is to deal with the challenge on a case by case basis,’ says Det Supt Tomlinson.
If we are looking at a proof of concept such as a new social media tool or a new analytics tool, the first thing we do is complete a DPIA and examine the legislation and ethics associated with that type of technology.
If it’s a piece of technology that is collecting information about people, are we confident we have the necessary legislation in place, the correct legal framework and the best legal advice regarding its use? Even if we do decide to purchase a new piece of technology, we constantly review the legislation, ethics and policies. This ensures our use remains legal, ethical and proportionate.
Having a policy in place around retention and disposal of data is also a vital challenge as well as ensuring officers develop an investigator’s mindset around digital data to enable them to see the data in the context of the wider investigation.
Getting the data into an environment where you can search across different formats continues to be an ongoing challenge for the UK police service as a whole.
Ensuring that staff at levels have the appropriate level of digital knowledge is at the heart of the Met’s work and this continues to be an on-going challenge.
Also, the need to have effective tendering, procurement and financial mechanisms in place is absolutely crucial. Policing often has process-driven systems in place, which can stifle our staff. If the processes are too complex or the business is too slow to make changes – people will eventually give up trying to be innovative, forward thinking and agile.
It has developed and encouraged experts such as Digital Media Investigators and Digital Media Advisors who are given an enhanced level of training to support investigations and officers. A team of specialist digital analysts has also been brought in to work alongside investigators to provide their expertise on major crime cases.
One of the biggest changes that Det Supt Tomlinson has introduced is a new Digital Operations team that will work directly alongside those investigating the most serious and complex crime. They will help design Digital Strategies, identify a broader range of digital opportunities and assist in the analysis of all the different types of evidential data.
‘Our main task is to take that digital intelligence and transfer it into understandable evidence. Ultimately you’ve got to get what is often complex data into court so a jury can understand it.’
In terms of what success will look like, Det Supt Tomlinson is clear in his mind that,
‘If you can change existing processes or introduce new ways of working that not only significantly improve things, but also have longevity and stand the test of time - that feels like an achievement - and ultimately success.’
Det Supt Phil Tomlinson