Katy Bourne PCC: Challenges for Policing in the Digital Age


For Safer Internet Day, an initiative run by the Safer Internet Foundation,  Katy Bourne PCC, Principal Lead of the APCC Police Technology & Digital Group, shares her views on both the threats posed to society by digital crime, and the opportunities presented to law enforcement agencies by digital technology to help keep us safer. 

As we pause for thought on Safer Internet Day I have been reflecting on the extent to which digital information has transformed and shaped our lives in an incredibly short time-span. It is now no longer realistic to think of the real world and the virtual world as separate places; they have become inextricably entwined.

Almost everybody with access to a smartphone, tablet or PC has a digital identity. Almost every transaction leaves a digital footprint and even our homes and domestic appliances keep digital records of our heating and washing habits.

In the uber-connected “internet of things” our choices and preferences are monitored, recorded and shared and this digital profile helps business target us with bespoke products and services.

Shopping; socialising; campaigning; romancing, revenge and exploitation have all been hugely enabled in equal measures by digital information.

The internet is the Pandora’s Box society couldn’t wait to open and in time we have created our very own portal to a virtual underworld.

From its growth as an academic and scientific network, the internet has grown to reflect the limitless imagination and creativity of humankind as well as our darkest behaviours.

IT journalist Sean Gallagher said “the internet looks a lot like New York in the late 1970s…there is a cacophony of hateful speech, vice of every kind and police trying to keep a lid on it all.”

The traditional filter of editorial intervention has gone and everyone is a publisher now.

We are in the post-truth world, where experts are scorned in favour of populist big ideas that are fertilised on social media.

Whereas many people used to lift their opinions from Red Tops and Broadsheets, the poisonous ubiquity of instant-reflex comment and its subsequent reporting only adds to the post-truth miasma of fact, opinion and falsehoods.

Nation states now struggle to police a borderless world. The early hippy declaration of cyber independence from real world politics and business looks rather naive now. Teenage hackers can cripple Pentagon computers for a laugh, and paedophile rings exchange their grotesque abuse for profit.

In our rush to digitise information and connect everything online we have put convenience ahead of common sense. Almost every home, business and phone has a wired or wireless connection that makes us vulnerable to crime, sexual grooming and exploitation.

As early adopters of new technology, children and young people have evolved an almost chronic dependence on phones, tablets and computers. Their comfort with innovation is not always matched with appropriate caution so I have been very keen to find out how we can help young people in Sussex to stay safe online.

In my first term as PCC, I established the Sussex Youth Commission (SYC). This diverse group of 14-25 year-olds held a rolling “Big Conversation” across the county with thousands of their peers to find out what concerned them.  Cyber bullying and online harassment was one of the five key concerns the Youth Commission uncovered. Some members had experienced sustained and serious online abuse and they spoke to many young people with similar experiences.

Shortly after they presented their “Big Conversation” findings to me and the Chief Constable, SYC members established Youth Independent Advisory Group to translate their ideas and recommendations into action.

The Youth IAG met every two months and worked with key officers from Sussex Police. A Digital Safety and Healthy Relationships group looked at consent, sexting and revenge porn, an issue that hit the headlines in the summer in Sussex and led to officers getting help and training from victims of revenge porn.

SYC members discussed the risks of sharing intimate images and how quickly one can lose control of them. They learned how the digital footprint of images and comments on social media can affect your future relationships and your career. They developed a presentation on Digital Safety that was successfully piloted with groups of students in Crawley. This was very well received and the members will be visiting more schools and colleges in the future.

Last year, the Youth Commission also provided feedback on national police social media and online campaigns to tackle radicalisation and preventing extremism. They looked at what extremist groups were producing to lure young people and assessed counter-extremist education messages that will be used online.

More recently SYC members have provided a useful check and challenge to some new Sussex Police campaigns. This included their testing of messaging and imagery for a Child Sexual Exploitation awareness campaign that targeted transport hubs and routes across Sussex.

Before the Christmas and New Year festive season, SYC members also tested the force’s domestic abuse awareness campaign messages for younger people.

In another unique and positive development, my Youth Commission members will be working with my Elders’ Commission to develop the most effective safety messages to help older citizens stay safe online and avoid frauds and exploitation.

Using the results of a new fraud survey of more than 3,000 older people, our Youth and Elders’ Commission volunteers will suggest the best language and approach to use and design some simple digital messages to be disseminated by young people to their older family members.

Some victims of fraud in Sussex have lost hundreds of thousands of pounds and some have lost their homes.  Although the national fraud profile shows that younger people are more frequently targeted, in counties like Sussex with an ageing population, it is the 65+ age group which is most vulnerable to fraud and loses the most. As more older people become used to using digital technology, the likelihood of falling foul of cyber dependent or cyber-enabled crime increases.

It’s not just those we may consider more vulnerable who need to wise up about digital danger.We lock our cars and we bolt our doors but use our birthdays or even 1234 as our password to access bank accounts and online identities.  Why bother breaking in when you can steal somebody’s identity or PIN number and open the doors without a tyre lever?

A recent cyber crime survey across the South East showed that despite knowing about the dangers of hacking, phishing and ransomware, very few people bothered to update anti-virus software or change PIN numbers. This cavalier approach to personal cyber security is probably costing more than the reported figures show.

So is it feasible to police the digital world and is it just the responsibility of the police?

Digital technology affords police huge opportunities to improve how they conduct their business. It vastly improves police ability to store, analyse and communicate data, from DNA screening, fingerprint and criminal records and crime hotspot mapping, not to mention putting information in the palm of officers out in the community and at crime scenes.

Search engines, google earth and street mapping help us look up information, it helps us peer down from satellites and take a virtual look at every street.

There are technological opportunities and risks all around and policing has acknowledged that it needs help to navigate the new landscape of crime and how, when and where it is most effective to intervene.

Government has a chequered history when it comes to the delivery of large-scale IT projects, which is why I believe a private/public partnership approach has a better chance of succeeding.

By working across all forces and existing national policing platforms, we have a real chance to transform our whole policing approach and not just to modernise existing processes.

I take my position as PCC and Chair of the Police ICT Company seriously and I want to use both to help the police help protect our citizens and our businesses.

Over the past six months, as I have met other PCCs and Police Chiefs, it is refreshing to see the emergence of a coalition of mutual interests.   Government, police, academics and businesses have seen that much more can be achieved by working together to take a fresh look at the crime and social challenges of the digital age. Now we need the courage to ditch some ancient and established practices to deliver policing and justice fit for the 21st century.

However, change on this scale takes time. We need to act more quickly and galvanise a community response to help police the sordid and criminal side of cyber space.

Right now, there is almost nothing that can’t be bought on the dark web from false passports and class A drugs to weapons, sex, and murder. There is no limit to the depravity and cruelty that people will sell or share online and all of this is a few clicks away from the smart phone our children are playing on.

We can’t uninvent the internet but we can use education and technology to make it safer for our children to use, and smarter legislation to tackle those who abuse it.

Katy Bourne PCC, Principal Lead of the APCC Police Technology & Digital Portfolio Group.



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