The early August spate of riots in London and other parts of the United Kingdom were of real concern to me personally, not only because they occurred in my home town but because they appeared to be totally without motive – even to the rioters themselves!
Equally frustrating, in a city where digital technology is being used to monitor its citizens’ every move, it’s obvious that this technology is not being used as effectively as it could be. The old world respected and admired cultures of the London “bobby” and community policing have not been successfully linked to 21st century technology, so that law enforcement services are unable to interact with their diverse urban communities and deter the escalation of flash points.
In London you have the densest network of closed-circuit TVs (CCTV) anywhere in the world. The probability is that the average Londoner will be caught on camera at least once every 10 minutes. With this impressive network of CCTV’s has come sophisticated facial recognition software, as well as software that’s capable of fast-tracking through hours of video footage and pinpointing the exact location of those people under surveillance.
Integration is the key
This reliance on technology, however, presents similar problems to those that the CIA experienced in the 90s, when the level of sophistication of the technology was considered to be more important than how it was actually linked to assets on the ground. Similarly, during the recent crisis in London, the bobbies on the street were not effectively linked with this high technology, leaving them powerless to provide and receive real time information, so that when the riots escalated, strong arm tactics had to be used to quell them. Now there is talk that community policing is passed its usefulness and should be replaced with US style “fear policing”. A better alternative, as I see it, is to more efficiently integrate and leverage this hybrid of technology and the community bobby, and where necessary support it by more effective targeted backup.
Two sides to a coin
Reminiscent of the Arab Spring, social media and social networking once again played a critical role during this unrest, as instant messaging was used to incite, coordinate and reinforce actions across a widespread area. There were immediate calls in the UK to monitor, intercept and block this messaging, something that the UK and the US governments were only recently advocating that China and the Arab countries NOT do in the face of legitimate press protests. They recommended that the right to protest and communicate freely should be safeguarded.
Legitimate reasons to control
When digital forms of communication are used to advance criminal activity (looting, arson, the destruction of property and so on) I agree that countermeasures need to be in place; however, as in judo, I believe that the secret is to use the force of the opponent to counteract them. This would mean using social media to engage with and mobilize the masses against the criminal minority, and would require the legitimate authority to openly communicate and dialogue via all channels to ensure a consensus of opinion within the communities.
Looking to the future
Western governments, law enforcement and security services need to readdress the realities of policing and protecting democracy in today’s digital world. The current economic climate of austerity, high unemployment and limited growth only heightens the pressures and frustrations felt by society. In large cities, the flash point is ever present when small orchestrated groups use the increasing isolation of the community to their own advantage – and we have seen that social media and social networking can work both ways in such an environment. This is the time when we need to ensure that the integration of information and communication technology is aligned with the values and culture of our democratic society, and that it is used for the greater good.
Understanding and gaining a strategic perspective in these rapidly changing digital times can be difficult if 99% of your focus is tactical. To gain clearer insights into how your business could be impacted in the future by these changes, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org, +1-847-478-1633 or visit our website www.keysoglobal.com
Steve Bell, President, KeySo Global