Digitalisation in policing

Digitisation and digital technology offer many new opportunities. Unfortunately, also for criminal activities. For example, according to Statista, the number of cases recorded by the police in the area of cybercrime has more than doubled in the past ten years (2011: 59,491, 2021: 124,137). A trend that the police have to deal with. No wonder, then, that police investigative work is also being digitally upgraded.

Blaulicht - Digitalisierung in der Polizeiarbeit

Fortunately, the digitalisation strategy in the individual federal states of Germany does not only include the provision of larger servers or stronger networking as a response to increasing cybercrime: Digitalisation is also playing an increasingly important role on the side of the emergency services on the street and in classic "analogue" offences.

Bodycams and mobile phones for police officers on the street

One example of digitalisation in the equipment of police forces are the much-discussed body cams, which have been in use in some European countries since 2005. In Germany, too, many police officers now wear shoulder cameras to document an operation. Whether the use of these cameras is actually effective in preventing violence does not yet seem to have been conclusively clarified. There is also a controversial debate about whether the cameras serve to protect the police or whether they also have advantages for the citizens (link in German).

What is undisputed, on the other hand, is the widespread provision of the police on patrol with mobile phones or tablets and the corresponding apps. This digital equipment simplifies the work on the street by providing simple and electronic accident recording, instant searches and many other services. This is certainly a sensible development that takes into account the general trend towards the digitalisation of all kinds of processes.

Digital case and process files

If facts can be recorded digitally on site in the future, this is a first step towards a completely digital case file. An end-to-end digitalised provision of criminal files and evidence would fundamentally simplify both the exchange of information and the search in case files. The day-to-day processing of files at the police and judiciary would also be much more efficient in digital form.

No wonder, then, that work is being done at full speed on this vision. In Baden-Württemberg, for example, the "data highway for criminal cases" was introduced in March this year. The aim is not only to digitally map analogue processes, but to use all the possibilities of digitalisation to ensure more efficient and better criminal prosecution. The cooperation between the police and the judiciary is to be intensified with a digital case file.

Detection with the help of IT forensics, AI and digital hardware

Regardless of the type of crime - whether cybercrime or "analogue crime" - the amount of digital data involved is growing by leaps and bounds. Thus, it is becoming more and more of a challenge to meaningfully analyse the masses of geodata, social media entries, traces on smartphones, etc. that are of interest in connection with criminal offences.

In order to secure digital information and traces relevant to an investigation, to make them professionally visible and - most importantly - usable for a court case, the police need experts from the field of IT. At a time when the dark net is increasingly being used as a "space" for planning and implementing crimes, this is indispensable expertise. Because IT forensic experts are not only specialised in disclosing relevant evidence such as login data, downloads, executed commands, etc. on individual devices. They can also systematically put data from IT systems and databases into context and prepare them for investigative work.

Already today, and certainly more so in the future, AI offers a complementary solution in police work, for example in predicting crimes or also in facial recognition. Artificial intelligence is also very helpful when it comes to making an initial pre-selection when preserving evidence from images and videos, in order to make it easier for investigators to sift through the masses of material. Another example of the use of AI is given by the German magazine "Polizeipraxis". In the USA, investigators were able to solve a series of pharmacy thefts by analysing the movement data and internet searches of individual suspects. This is still an isolated case, but it may soon become the practice of police investigations in Germany as well.

Digital hardware also supports the police's investigative work. Drones, for example, offer new possibilities or, in the truest sense of the word, perspectives in the fight against crime. With this aerial reconnaissance tool, people can be located in a timely manner without having to directly dispatch a helicopter. Geodata that is important for the work can also be determined in time and put into context. The images created with this tool are also helpful in documenting crime scenes. 

The different agencies have to improve their networking

However, all technological developments and tools can only achieve their effect if the police work nationwide and networked. This is easier said than done, since police in Germany is predominantly a state matter and it is already not easily possible nationally to coordinate the various state and federal police stations with each other. Moreover, crime does not adhere to physical borders. Crime is becoming more and more international, so that cooperation with Europol and Interpol must also come into focus. The police are aware of this development and are working intensively on transnational solutions, as this year's Interpol General Assembly also showed.  

Core issue: data protection

With every new technology, the question of data protection always arises. This is indispensable for digitalisation topics related to police work. When it comes to state surveillance of citizens, a serious and comprehensive examination of the data protection framework is mandatory. For example, an EU commission is currently working on a proposal to expand Europe-wide data exchange. In addition to DNA data, fingerprints or vehicle information, biometric personal data such as passport photos are to be available EU-wide in the future. From the point of view of civil rights activists, this is an extremely controversial demand.

Social media information is particularly explosive in this context. If this data is publicly accessible, it can of course also be used by the police. Private data, on the other hand, is initially protected and cannot be accessed by the police without further ado.

This is different in the USA. The American investigative authorities work very closely with the Meta Group. A specific department at Facebook, consisting of former police officers, assists with investigations and research. This is a dubious procedure in terms of data protection, which is being critically discussed also in the USA.

Conclusion: It won't work without digitisation

All in all, digitisation in police investigations is almost always a complex challenge that cannot be solved quickly or easily. Nevertheless, all those involved are very aware that the previous analogue procedures and processes are far from sufficient in many places to take technological developments into account. It is therefore not surprising that most federal states are working at full speed on digital strategies and their implementation - also in NRW.

If the police want to be able to successfully combat national and international crime in the future, then modern, digital equipment and structures are urgently needed.

Text: Alexa Brandt

Zur deutschen Version dieses Artikels geht es hier: Digitalisierung in der Polizeiarbeit

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