I recently attended the annual two-day police technology forum in Canberra, which showcases new tools being introduced into police forces in Australia, Britain, New Zealand and the United States.
Some of the technologies included online and automated mobile reporting systems, better automatic number plate recognition and GPS-related technologies, more comprehensive intelligence capabilities, new intranet networks, forensic upgrades and improved IT-based police management systems.
An important consideration will be the arrival of 5G mobile networks, several times faster than the national broadband network, which could make the NBN largely redundant in urban areas. 5G is expected to be commercially available worldwide by 2020.
With the upgrade in technology comes the need for better cybersecurity. Security and privacy concerns will probably be raised about offshore companies, such as China’s Huawei and ZTE, delivering 5G.
To match improving and streamlining police systems, we will need a justice system that can process complex criminal cases in days and weeks, rather than months and years.
Technology is enhancing police capabilities but it also makes police more accountable. Automatically activated police body-worn cameras are a case in point. These cameras have led to significantly fewer vexatious complaints about police abuses. At the same time, they have probably made police more cautious about abusing their powers. The technology has been a “win-win” for the general public.
There still seems to be little coordination between Australian police forces on their take-up of new technologies. Victoria Police was given a 2017-18 IT budget of $180 million (up from $5 million a year) to upgrade its dated technologies. By contrast, the Queensland Police Service has had similar technologies for several years, possibly because of the G20 summit in Brisbane in 2014.
The sad reality is that an increase in police funding usually follows some heinous crime that embarrasses politicians into providing more resources for police, or it precedes a major public event like the G20, which requires optimal use of police resources.
A major weakness with state and territory police forces adopting different technologies at different times using different criteria is the ongoing and long-standing problem of national coordination and standardisation of data.
Communication between police forces is also a problem. GovLink is a federal government service to transmit classified information between public agencies over the internet. I understand that most police forces have not used it (or its predecessor, FedLink) to communicate. Some still even communicate by fax.
The Australian Federal Police also has AFPNET (for official and limited personal use), AFPSec to transmit secret information, and AFPTSN to transmit top-secret information – but most police outside the AFP have never heard of these networks.
Having common police procedures and a criminal law that is standardised throughout Australia would also be hugely beneficial. But, realistically, it won't ever happen.
I was disappointed to hear from a Department of Home Affairs speaker that there were no plans to merge existing personal image databases, such as those held by police, motor vehicle registries and passport offices. While it might worry civil libertarians, the general public would benefit because facial recognition software would make it much more difficult for dishonest people to hold multiple identities, engage in fraud, and evade arrest by moving interstate or overseas.
I was struck once again by how many senior public servants come to a conference to give a presentation and then rush back to their office. It suggests either that they are not open to new ideas, are unable to delegate, or their office is poorly resourced.
The quality of the presentations was again variable. Presenters should never say “I know my presentation is keeping you from lunch/drinks/etc”; that just distracts the audience from the here-and-now. Cluttered PowerPoint slides with small fonts are hard work for an audience. Real case studies always interest an audience and should be used whenever possible to illustrate the lessons learned.
The worst type of presentation is where the speaker gets up and reads from a text. It suggests the presenter either doesn’t know the topic, is a poor communicator or has a nervous minister who doesn't trust his or her staff. The presenter might as well have distributed the text to the audience and stayed at work.
Many conference formats have an accompanying trade show of products and one or two streams of presentations. Trade show vendors don’t normally get to sit in on the presentations, which is a pity because it would give them better insights into some of the market gaps and what prospective buyers need.
There is a lot of research money available now to organisations like the National Security Science and Technology Centre but it seems to me that researchers often look to resolve problems for which there are already adequate commercial off-the-shelf solutions available internationally, including from non-Five Eyes sources such as Japan and India.
A useful research option would be for the technology centre to evaluate different commercial products and assess their capability for different applications, rather as Choice does for consumer products. ASIO’s T4 (responsible for protective security measures) does some evaluation of security-related products but it isn't a technical research organisation. T4 is also not funded to conduct more expensive tests, such as having vehicles crash into Australian-produced barrier systems. (Britain and the US evaluate their countries’ security products and share the information with us.)
On the broader information front, the annual security in government conference run by the Attorney-General's Department's national security resilience policy division has been discontinued. Since 1987, it had been the flagship event for security professionals, and attracted a large trade show of security products, as well as multi-stream specialist security presentations.
In 2015, the department described the event as "one of the premier security conferences on the yearly calendar. Attached to the SIG conference is an extensive trade exhibition which, on average, features over 100 security-related service providers who work closely with both the government and private sector to provide cutting-edge solutions to protective security issues.”
The rationale for discontinuing it the following year was that it was no longer needed, because there were other communication channels. The reality, I was told, was that it was time-consuming and complex to put together – hardly an acceptable reason. Perhaps an example of an agency being more focused on responding to its minister’s demands than on helping core customers?
It would be a positive development for national security if Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton’s new department was to resurrect the SIG conference.
Clive Williams is a visiting professor at the ANU’s centre for military and security law and an adjunct professor at ADFA.