In Depth

Can you police by machine?

Liberty warns predictive policing threatens citizens’ rights as federation warn of dangers of staffing shortages

Liberty has warned that the growing use of predictive crime mapping by British police forces poses a threat to citizens’ rights and freedoms.

Collating the results of 90 Freedom of Information requests in a report called Policing by Machine, the rights group has laid bare the full extent of so-called “predictive policing” in the UK for the first time.

It claims that 14 forces are using, have previously used or are planning to use “shady algorithms which ‘map’ future crime or predict who will commit or be a victim of crime, using biased police data”.

Among the warnings set out in the report are concern that police algorithms: entrench pre-existing discrimination; increase the risk of “automation bias”; and lack transparency.

They are not alone. Giving evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee in June 2018, non-profit privacy organisation Big Brother Watch described predictive measures that involve facial recognition as “intrusive”.

Last year, Kent Police quietly scrapped a five-year pilot project that trialled computer software designed to predict and prevent crime.

Technology developed by US firm Predpol involved machine learning algorithms that were able to predict when and where a crime might take place by processing data from records on previous criminal activity.

While it has been used by the Los Angeles Police Department since 2011, it was the first time the technology was deployed in England and Wales.

It “had a good record of predicting where crimes are likely to take place”, John Phillips, a superintendent at Kent Police, told the Financial Times. But he added: “What is more challenging is to show that we have been able to reduce crime with that information.”

In a separate case, Wired reported in March 2018 that “an algorithm designed to help UK police make custody decisions has been altered amid concerns that it could discriminate against people from poorer areas”.

The Harm Assessment Risk Tool (Hart) developed by Durham Constabulary uses 34 different points to predict whether suspects are at a low, moderate or high risk of committing further crimes. An academic analysis of Hart warned that if one of these – postcode data – is relied upon for building future models of reoffending then it could draw more attention to certain neighbourhoods. “It is these predictors that are used to build the model – as opposed to the model itself – that are of central concern,” the paper said.

Despite these concerns, “predictive technology is seeing increased adoption in the UK, with the Metropolitan Police Service in London testing a service similar to Predpol’s”, says The Daily Telegraph.

A 2017 report on big data’s use in policing, published by the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI), said British forces already have access to huge amounts of data but lack the capability to use it.

The report’s author Alexander Babuta told The Independent: “In the UK, forces have found that it’s about 10 times more likely to predict the location of future crime than random beat policing. It allows you to allocate a limited number of resources to where they’re most needed.”

This could prove vital as police forces become increasingly stretched. The BBC reports that “since 2010, central government funding to police forces has been cut by almost a third, in real terms, leading the number of officers to fall by 21,000”.

A recent Police Federation of England and Wales (PFEW) survey found nearly 90% of officers say they are under-staffed, leading to one of its spokesmen to claim: “We’re becoming a completely reactive service, we can barely keep up with demand from 999.”

John Rentoul in The Independent says: “The long fall in crime since 1995 seems to have come to an end, with the most recent trend either flat or rising slightly, and knife crime, especially in London, rising sharply.”

To counter this, police departments may be forced to turn more to machines to fill the gaps, but in so doing risk “everyone’s rights and freedoms”, says Liberty.

Assistant Chief Constable Jon Drake, National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for intelligence, told Police Professional: “Policing is underpinned in the UK by a strong set of values and ethical standards, as well as a significant amount of legislation.  

“At all times we seek to balance keeping people safe with people’s rights. This includes the way in which we police hot-spots for crime.

“For many years police forces have looked to be innovative in their use of technology to protect the public and prevent harm and we continue to develop new approaches to achieve these aims.”

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