Chapter 4: Do the police know the scale of digital crime and how do they respond?

Real lives, real crimes: A study of digital crime and policing

Chapter 4. Do the police know the scale of digital crime and how do they respond?

4.1. In order for the police service to provide a sufficient and effective response to digital crime, it has to understand at a national and local level the size of the challenge which it is facing.

Do the police understand the scale of digital crime?

Progress bar: Do the police understand the scale of digital crime?

4.2. Understanding the current and future demand that the criminal use of digital technology does, and will, place on police forces is central to providing an effective and efficient policing response. Such understanding allows forces to make sound, evidence-based decisions in relation to critical areas, such as operational structures, procurement, and learning and development.

4.3. Understanding the way in which digital crime is committed also enables the police service to identify those who are most likely to be vulnerable to this form of crime. In turn, this will help to inform the most appropriate response and to provide guidance to help to prevent likely individuals from becoming victims in the first place, or repeat victims thereafter.

4.4. Given the importance of such information, we considered the extent to which forces collected data in order to develop strategies, risk assessments, tactical implementation plans and local profiles (In 2014 the Home Office provided guidance on the development, distribution and effective use of local profiles. See Serious and Organised Crime Local Profiles: A Guide, Home Office, November 2014). We found that little information was obtained. Given that fact, some forces have developed responses based on professional judgment. As a consequence, those forces are now some way along their journey of building an effective response, while others remain ‘in the starting blocks’.

4.5. However, we are pleased to see that the issue has been recognised and that steps are being taken to understand the scale of current digital crime activity.

4.6. We consider that an important element in generating reliable information about the scale of digital crime is the adoption of a flagging system which enables local and national statistics to be produced.

4.7. An only partially successful voluntary scheme in which participating forces could choose to flag reported crimes that fall within the definition of cyber-crime was replaced from 1 April 2015 with a mandatory system (now known as the online flag). This requires all police forces to flag all crimes which they record:

“[w]here the officer believes that on the balance of probability the offence was committed, in full or in part, through a computer, computer network or other computer-enabled device”.

(Additional data requirement, Home Office, 2015, paragraph 1.1.6)

4.8. Those forces which took part in the previously voluntary scheme already have some insight into the scale and targeting of digital crime and now, under the mandatory scheme, the remaining forces will be able to plug the gap in their knowledge.

4.9. The Home Office, as the owner of the process of flagging, has recognised that the aggregation of the forces’ returns will:

“provide a national and local picture of the extent to which the internet and digital communications technology are being used to commit crimes. This will give an insight into the scale and nature of online crime, and it will greatly enhance the development of policies to tackle them and protect victims.”

(Additional data requirement, Home Office, 2015, paragraph 1.1.6)

4.10. We encourage all forces to contribute accurately and comprehensively to the system of flagging in order to build up a national picture. However, we recognise that the extent to which this will happen is dependent on the recording officer recognising that the crime which he or she is considering is a digital crime. This reinforces the need for adequate training and we return to this theme in chapter 5.

Do the police understand the impact of digital crime?

Progress bar: Do the police understand the impact of digital crime?

4.11. Finding out the extent to which digital crime is being perpetrated in any given police force remains only part of the story in devising a national and local response. The other, equally important data centre on the impact that digital crime has on its victims.

4.12. Our case study concerning Daniel, page 38, illustrates the positive victim reaction when a police officer recognised the impact that the crime had on the victim, not only in a physical sense (such as the loss of money) but also in an emotional sense (such as the creation of fear that the victim is vulnerable to further crime and that his or her personal details are now known across the internet).

4.13. Beyond that, forces need also to be aware of the local community’s perceptions of digital crime as a local police response does have a role to play in helping to safeguard and support victims of digital crime, and help to prevent others from becoming victims themselves.

4.14. Some forces that helped us during our study have made the decision not to rely solely on numerical data when shaping their response to digital crime. Instead, they have developed their understanding by consulting with their communities in order to identify their fears and concerns. This has enabled those forces to construct a more comprehensive response to the occurrence of digital crime, its prevention and its aftermath.

4.15. We encourage all forces to look at the impact of digital crime in the round. The use of public surveys and consulting local business fora are two ways in which forces can obtain a broader understanding. One force intends to use its staff as a proxy for the wider community in an information-gathering exercise.

4.16. These are sensible initiatives and we encourage their use.


4.17. The police service needs to establish the scale and impact of digital crime, at both the national and local level, and how to respond to it.

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Read Chapter 5: How well are the police training their officers in digital crime?

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