Statewatch article: RefNo# 33881
UK: Predictive policing in London: commercial interests trump accountability
Statewatch News Online, August 2014
London's Metropolitan Police (Met) have adopted a "neither confirm nor deny" policy on their use of "predictive policing" technology, citing the need to protect the commercial interests of both the police and companies. This is despite the fact that the force admits that releasing relevant information "could potentially further the debate around the efficacy and ethics of using such technologies," and could improve "the accountability of decisions taken in relation to the research and development of such technologies."

Statewatch submitted a freedom of information request on 22 May asking for any evaluations made by the Met of the PredPol software, sold by the company of the same name, as well as copies of any data protection or privacy agreements between the Met and PredPol relating to the transfer of data from the Met to Predpol. [1]

PredPol is one of several types of "predictive policing" software that have come onto the market in recent years. Police forces provide the company with several years' worth of crime data along with daily updates of location, time and type of crime committed. The PredPol software uses this information to create:

"[P]rediction boxes of precise 500 sq ft zones which are listed in priority order as to where crimes are most likely to occur, which is then delivered to the smart phones, tablets and PCs of police officers who use it to make decisions on where to deploy." [2]

A variety of predictive analytics systems are in use by forces across the country. Kent Police appear to be the most enthusiastic users of PredPol and have released a number of operational reviews of the software following freedom of information (FOI) requests, albeit with some sections censored. [3]

The Met, however, initially delayed responding to an FOI request, citing the need to consider "the public interest test against the application of relevant qualified exemptions" - that is, provisions in the Freedom of Information Act that allow public authorities to refuse the release of information.

A decision finally came on 15 July: "The Metropolitan Police Service [MPS] neither confirms nor denies that it holds that information you have requested."

The chief reason for taking this approach was that:

"To confirm or deny whether evaluation material, data protection or privacy agreements exist in relation to a named company could publicly reveal that information in a way that might prejudice the commercial interests of the MPS, the company named and its competitors and could be in breach of any such privacy of Non Disclosure Agreements if they existed."

The Met argued, in summary, that:

"[C]onfirmation and disclosure… could lead to avoidable litigation, which the MPS would have to defend at cost to the public purse… There is a public duty to ensure that all MPS resources are as public facing as possible and not diverted to dealing with avoidable litigation from commercial entities."

A follow-up email did contain the admission that:

"[T]he MPS is engaged in a research partnership with a small group of vendors and academia, with a view to assessing the efficacy and potential operational usefulness of such technologies. The vendors involved are supplying their products Free of Charge (FoC). This activity is covered by privacy, or Non Disclosure Agreements (NDA)."

The email argued that "any form of confirmation/disclosure" could lead to legal action. For example, naming one vendor may lead to other vendors taking legal action due to a perceived "endorsement".

Releasing interim evaluation material could also lead to legal action, as: "Representatives from Academia could argue that work they planned to publish has been undermined by a premature 'unauthorised' release." Furthermore, it could be argued that naming companies involved could "unduly prejudice" the "commercial position" of those companies.

In any case, the Met has apparently "made no decision around any future procurement of such technologies." However, some information on the force's use of predictive policing systems is already in the public domain.

A November 2013 article in Police Oracle notes that a predictive analytics system employed by the Met "contributed to a reduction in several key crime areas," and was "due to be rolled out to all 32 [London] boroughs by December." Furthermore, the article noted: "The Met will shortly conduct an evaluation of the system with University College London." [4]

Some media reports seem to suggest that the system first employed by the Met last year was PredPol, but it remains unclear whether this is the case. [5]

The use of "neither confirm nor deny" by the Met has been highlighted in recent years by an ongoing legal battle waged by a number of women who unknowingly had relationships with undercover police officers. At the beginning of July a court ruled the Met could not rely upon "neither confirm nor deny" with regard to the identities of undercover officers. [6]

The use of "neither confirm nor deny" exemptions in FOI law has also been widely deployed by police forces when asked for information about their use of drones, fuelling suspicion that the National Crime Agency may be operating unmanned surveillance aircraft. [7]

Most recently, the enduring commitment to secrecy at the Metropolitan Police was highlighted by the submission to the Home Affairs Committee of a report on corruption within the force:

"Scotland Yard… handed only six heavily redacted pages of Operation Tiberius to the committee, following a request from MPs for the controversial report. Its full length extends to about 170 pages." [8]

Further reading

  • Chris Jones, 'Predictive policing: mapping the future of policing?', openDemocracy, 10 June 2014
  • '"Predictive policing" comes to the UK', Statewatch News Online, March 2013

    Footnotes

    [1] Metropolitan Police, Response and clarification to FOI request
    [2] Anna Dubuis, 'Mapping crime before it happens', Gravesend Reporter, 24 January 2013
    [3] Kent Police: 'PredPol operational review - initial findings', November 2013; 'PredPol operational review', 2014; 'Agreement between the Chief Constable of Kent Police and PredPol Ltd', 7 December 2012
    [4] Jasmin McDermott, 'Met presses ahead with predictive policing initiative', Police Oracle, 5 November 2013 [paywall]
    [5] Francesca Infante, 'Met's Minority Report: They use computer alforithms to predict where crime will happen', Mail Online, 29 September 2013; Tom Porter, 'London Police to Adopt Crime-Predicting Computer Package', International Business Times, 29 September 2013
    [6] Sandra Laville, 'Women duped by Met undercover officers win high court ruling', The Guardian, 2 July 2014; see also the Police Spies Out Of Lives website.
    [7] 'Back from the battlefield: domestic drones in the UK', Statewatch/Drone Wars UK, June 2014
    [8] Tom Harper, 'Police files reveal 'endemic corruption' at the Met', The Independent, 3 August 2014

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