Ethical policing of the internet – part 2

The first ‘proper’ meeting of the new National Police Chiefs’ Council’s  “Digital Ethics Panel” took place yesterday, at the College of Policing – I am one of the initial members of the panel. The meeting yesterday followed from an exploratory meeting back in March, a somewhat fiery affair that I wrote about at the time. It has taken some months for that meeting to turn into something real. In those months a great deal has happened – from the replacement of ACPO (the Association of Chief Police Officers) with the NPCC, three big reviews of surveillance (from the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation (The Anderson Review) and the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)) and last but by no means least the victory of the Conservatives in the General Election. New legislation is on its way – the impending Investigatory Powers Bill – and the limited messages that have come out about what that bill will contain have been far from reassuring.

In this climate, the idea that policing of the internet should have an ethical basis – or at least an ethical backstop of a kind – is one that I think should be taken seriously, and the NPCC should be applauded for the initiative, though it is still far from clear what it will actually amount to. Yesterday’s meeting was largely to thrash out the terms of reference of the panel. The people present included representatives from the police, the National Crime Agency, and the technology industry as well as academics from law and from moral philosophy. The depth and breadth of knowledge and experience was impressive – I felt very much at the junior end – and the discussion was wide ranging, reflecting the depth of the challenge that such an idea represents.

The idea, essentially, is to address critical issues of police activity on the net, both theoretically and in practice. Issues raised yesterday included the interaction between the police and the security and intelligence agencies, policing and monitoring social media, the process through which the new Investigatory Powers Bill will be scrutinised, finding ways to help MPs to be better informed, educating and raising the skill and knowledge levels of police officers, helping academics and others to learn more about the operational reality of policing on the net. The work would be intended to be practical as well as theoretical – potentially advising on the ethical issues arising in actual investigations as they happen, not just being a talking shop.

It is far too early to say whether this will actually work. There are many risks attached – including the possibility that the panel is used as a kind of fig leaf or a rubber stamp, to its existence being used to pretend to ethical principles that are not really adhered to – but the very fact that the NPCC thinks such an idea is worth exploring is a good sign. I did not get any sense yesterday that anyone involved was doing so with ulterior motives – but I know I can be naive at times.

Time will tell, but this does seem to fit with the developing movement towards more accountability and transparency, better oversight and broader understanding of the issues involved in surveillance. That was part of the essence of both the Anderson Review and the RUSI report – and the police at least seem to have got that message.

This blog post is very much my personal view of what happened – there will be more official communication in time, but one of the key terms of reference that was agreed upon was that the members of the panel would be able to communicate in their own way about what happens – subject to the Chatham House Rule, and obvious issues of confidentiality, particularly in relation to ongoing police work. I believe there’s promise here. I hope I’m right.