Impact of tech on VAWG
Last month, techUK hosted a series of ‘Impact Days’ examining the development of digital solutions to tackle the ‘epidemic’ of violence and sexual crimes faced by women.
The stark reality is that a woman is killed by a man every three days in the UK; domestic abuse makes up 18 per cent of all recorded crime in England and Wales; and in the year ending March 2022, there were 194,683 sexual offences, of which 70,330 were rape. In addition, more than 21 per cent of women have experienced serious abuse and harassment at least once online in the UK.
During June, the digital technology trade association techUK held its ‘Tackling VAWG and RASSO with Tech’ Impact Days to examine how technology is being used to tackle cases of serious sexual and violent crime.
It gave techUK members, policymakers and technical specialists within the criminal justice system an opportunity to voice their ideas, experiences and expertise regarding digital technology’s role in tackling violence against women and girls (VAWG) and rape and serious sexual assault (RASSO).
This included police forces that have successfully adopted solutions and services to protect and support victims of VAWG and RASSO and secure prosecutions of those committing offences, but also technology that is supporting frontline policing’s response to incidents of serious sexual and violent crime.
The ‘Tackling VAWG and RASSO with Tech’ Impact Days came just a month after the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) issued the first ever national threat assessment of crimes posing the most danger to women and girls.
The in-depth 230-page intelligence document has been shared with all forces by the NPCC, which says it is “a key step” in the police response to VAWG and will guide forces as they relentlessly pursue abusers and deliver justice and support for victims.
Similar documents are used by police tackling national threats such as terrorism and serious organised crime. VAWG is now prioritised next to these crimes as a national threat in the recently updated Strategic Policing Requirement and is widely regarded as an “epidemic”.
The VAWG Strategic Threat and Risk Assessment (STRA) aims to support police forces to better understand the influences and levers that contribute to VAWG.
The NPCC says forces will use the STRA to effectively target their finite resources and decide how many officers will be needed to tackle the rising rates of violent and sexual crimes faced by women. It will also be used to identify where they should focus specialist investigators, victim support and crime-fighting technology to tackle the problem.
The NPCC has already warned that reporting of VAWG is expected to continue to rise in the coming year.
The offences identified in the STRA as carrying the biggest threat to women are: domestic abuse, rape and serious sexual offences, child sexual abuse and exploitation, and tech-enabled VAWG, such as online stalking and harassment
The STRA will be reviewed annually using data from across policing and insight from partner organisations such as the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and police and crime commissioners.
Deputy Chief Constable Maggie Blyth, national policing coordinator for VAWG, explained: “The epidemic of VAWG that we are facing meant that it was imperative we took the time to analyse the greatest threats to women and girls.
“All police chiefs have been given a copy of the STRA to help them make decisions in their own force areas about the best way to protect their communities. It allows chiefs to look ahead at future risks in terms of their ability to strategically plan and respond to VAWG.
“In order to have the right officers, trained to the right standards, and available at the right time, we are developing plans in conjunction with the College of Policing. This will support forces in ensuring that more officers are trained in public protection. There is an agreement that these crucial roles, which are often the most challenging and under-resourced, need to be accredited and properly equipped.
“Professionalising public protection will give officers the skills they need to do the job, understand the nuances of VAWG, and will attract a range of new people into policing. Police forces will then be better equipped to stop these terrible crimes.
“A national operating model for policing to tackle rape and serious sexual offences is being published next month as a result of the focused and rigorous work of Operation Soteria Bluestone. The findings showed that policing needs a capable, confident and reflective workforce, equipped with evidence-informed knowledge about the impact of rape and sexual offences on victims.”
She added: “The Government has recently announced the formation of a new taskforce to help enhance action against offenders of child sexual abuse and exploitation to protect children, including mandatory reporting for those who work with children and suspect abuse.
“Later in the year, in partnership with the CPS, we are publishing our joint justice plan to improve the criminal justice response to domestic abuse. The STRA clearly tells us that domestic abuse is an area of significant and increasing threat to women, so it is vital we act on that insight and ensure we are approaching the threat in a coordinated way.”
Access to the bigger picture
A woman is killed by a man every three days in the UK. The CPS has identified a link between stalking and domestic abuse and the most recent ONS figures show there were 194,683 sexual offences in the year ending March 2022.
In his blog for the Tackling VAWG and RASSO Impact Days, Paul Roberts, head of Strategy, Public Safety, at NEC Software Solutions, said this means understanding threat and risk early on in an investigation is essential.
“I would go as far to say that improving trust and confidence in the way policing is tackling VAWG is dependent on it,” he said.
“It’s the initial risk assessment that rates an incident high, medium, or low risk and which team it’s allocated to, which determines the victim’s journey from the outset.
Mr Roberts says the Holy Grail of early intervention is “good information”, and this means a single record of information that crosses multiple force and organisational boundaries. This will enable a more joined up approach that will prevent a serial perpetrator being treated as a first-time offender following a move.
“Technology exists and is being used by forces that can support the police to process and share the volume of evidence that can accompany a VAWG investigation, but often a low-level incident is not seen as ‘serious’ enough to warrant sharing,” said Mr Roberts.
The Holy Grail of early intervention is ‘good information’, and this means a single record of information that crosses multiple force and organisational boundaries
“Isolated safeguarding concerns across organisations don’t always meet the ‘dare to share’ threshold. IT today can break down the silos and organisational barriers and pick out the disparate pieces of the information puzzle to create a more complete record and highlight any emerging threats.
“This can help police forces to manage victims of serial domestic abusers away from the position of risk.”
A cutting-edge, technological approach, to managing VAWG/RASSO investigations
More than 21 per cent of women have experienced serious abuse and harassment at least once online in the UK. And with online crime now the most prevalent offence type, there is no sign of this rate decreasing, according to Scott Orton, head of UK at Chorus Intelligence.
In his blog submitted for the Tackling VAWG and RASSO Impact Days, he says technology is key to combatting the challenges that law enforcement faces concerning VAWG/RASSO investigations.
“The days of using manual processes to interpret data, relying on multiple, clunky systems that do not communicate and working in silos, must end,” said Mr Orton.
“Policing should keep pace with the speed at which data is growing and adopt software that can support them in staying one step ahead. This is especially important to counteract the lack of resources and dwindling expertise that has been reported.
“Only with technology can forces improve efficiencies. They can automate the data analysis process and empower multiple roles to share the workload of it through intuitive, self-serve tools.
“Only with technology can forces spearhead their OSINT (open-source intelligence) and be confident that they have uncovered all necessary evidence to secure a conviction. And only with technology can forces find evidence-based answers, fast, by overlaying multiple data types in one dashboard, to spot immediate patterns.”
In 2021, the Government, Ministry of Justice and the Home Office conducted a review into the criminal justice system.
“It found a lack of data sharing and collaboration among law enforcement as well as issues surrounding reduced resources and higher workloads, difficulties in finding evidence due to data overload and that much evidence is stored in disparate systems that do not communicate,” said Mr Orton.
“Advancements in technology exist which can help policing to overcome these challenges, yet many forces are still to adopt appropriate solutions that will support them in making a positive difference.”
Solutions that can support VAWG/RASSO investigations are those that are able to bulk search across social media platforms, consented data, and internal files, and overlay that information in one interactive dashboard, for quick and easy analysis, says Mr Orton.
The days of using manual processes to interpret data, relying on multiple, clunky systems that do not communicate and working in silos, must end
And that means collaborating and sharing data, he said, adding: “Many of the problems in the criminal justice system have been compounded by agencies working in silos and not communicating effectively.
“Any case management or digital investigation software must make case collaboration and data sharing, internally and externally, an automated and secure process.”
Supporting investigations through digital, data and technology
The Police Digital Service (PDS) is exploring how digital, data and technology can support victims, investigators and forensics teams.
Two focal PDS initiatives are working to provide solutions for RASSO:
- Digital Evidence Project (DEP) is seeking to establish common standards and methods for using digital evidence with RASSO. It is also exploring how digital, data and technology can better enable forces with investigating these crimes; and
- Digital Forensics Programme (DFP) is working in partnership with the NPCC’s portfolio for digital forensics, technology suppliers, and the forensic science community. The programme is developing a range of services for critical digital forensics capabilities.
In their article for the Tackling VAWG and RASSO Impact Days, T/DCI Andy Bidmead, digital evidence project lead at the PDS, and DCS Mark Greenhalgh, PDS head of change, DFP, said they are working partners, including techUK, to set the challenges of conducting RASSO investigations to industry.
A RASSO Tech Partnership Board was formed in July 2022, with the aim of bringing together representatives across policing, partner agencies and industry to work collectively to drive technology improvements and solutions.
They said: “Since autumn 2022, PDS through DEP has explored the range of technologies being used to support RASSO investigations. This work helps build a shared and deeper understanding of how policing uses technology, identify how improvements can be made and establish areas for greater consistency to aid officers with their investigations.
“The 43 territorial forces across England and Wales and British Transport Police, have participated in an ongoing landscape review. This work has identified enhancements, which forces can adopt, and opportunities for national work to drive consistency and support wider work underway to improve investigations.
“For example, exploring better ways of maximising collective buying power with the tech sector. Findings also confirm the need for a national approach to accreditation and validation of new technology applied for policing and forensics teams to use.
“This supports work underway through DFP’s Validation Services Project, which is working to define the national strategy and scope in this area.
“Sensitivity and care with evidence involving survivors of rape and serious sexual assaults is crucially important to support them through an investigation and get their case to court. Often, digital mobile phone data provides vital evidence.
“Selective extraction (SE) supports the careful compilation of device data in a proportionate way, relevant to a case’s requirements that enables victims to have their device returned to them quickly, within the 24-hour target in the government’s end-to-end rape review report.
“PDS’s DEP and DFP initiatives, are trialling existing software and opportunities for innovation with SE for use in RASSO investigations. Further work is currently underway to ensure these solutions comply and align with appropriate investigative standards, supported by products like technical specification documents to help forces with using these tools.
“Additionally, a new Selective Extraction and Examination app will be provided to officers, serving as a guide for decision making through the process of reviewing device data for consideration as evidence.”
Building digital foundations to tackle VAWG
Data, although all around us, is often hidden from plain sight and requires the correct approach to pinpoint, gather and organise, says Naomi Bolton, account manager, Blue Light Services, at Cloud Gateway.
And for police services specifically, there is even more pressure to get it right, as data is the key to gathering evidence, managing investigations and supporting a better citizen experience.
In her blog for the Tackling VAWG and RASSO Impact Days, she explains: “While all forces are prioritising VAWG and are developing their own plans, each force faces a unique set of challenges in terms of digital provision, and there is not a single digital roadmap that will suit all forces.
“Balancing regional and national priorities remains an issue for UK policing.”
Ms Bolton says the increased use of technology has caused a “significant growth” in the number of sources from which data can be extracted, as well as the volume and variety of data captured.
“Digital forensics data from victims, witnesses and suspects is typically from non-police sources and is approximately 20 times the volume of all other police data combined,” she says.
While all forces are prioritising VAWG and are developing their own plans, each faces a unique set of challenges in terms of digital provision, and there is not a single digital roadmap that will suit all
“This has placed challenges on policing in terms of both capability and capacity. His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services found that police forces are often unable to keep pace with the volume of digital evidence being collected, which has led to a considerable backlog.
“The proliferation of end-to-end encryption and use of the dark web are also adversely impacting the identification of offenders. The use of emerging technologies as counter-detection measures creates new challenges around the means and methods by which data and evidence is captured, stored and used.”
Ms Bolton says developing the policing response to VAWG must be based on a “sound understanding of the threat landscape”.
“To do this effectively there is a need for investment in local and national analytical and data capabilities,” she said.
“Data is an underused and underinvested asset for policing. Access to, and analysis of, non-policing data (such as that collected by health, local authorities and other partners) on VAWG will facilitate an improved collective understanding and response to VAWG.
“Investment in analytics and a single data and intelligence repository is crucial.”
Read the full article at https://www.techuk.org/resource/building-digital-foundations-to-tackle-vawg-vawgandrassotech.html
Victims are not alone
“Embracing the digital witness” is now essential in VAWG and RASSO investigations, says Scott Fitzmaurice, strategic development director and product owner at Forensic Analytics.
In his blog for the Tackling VAWG and RASSO Impact Days, he says the analysis of digital data in 2023 is no longer ‘desirable’ training but ‘essential’. This is of real importance when investigating VAWG offences such as stalking and harassment and RASSO investigations.
This means an effective baseline of training must be provided to all officers and staff, says Mr Fitzmaurice.
He explains: “Officers and staff are being expected to handle vast amounts of digital data such as communications data records and handset downloads with little or, no training and no access to software solutions that simplify this process.
“The obtaining of digital data has robust processes and training in place, and rightly so. But the dealing with that data once obtained, is inconsistent and siloed to specific departments.
“Often frontline teams are left reviewing excel spreadsheets and PDF documents manually, but not effectively.
“Imagine receiving a 60,000 page iPhone download in PDF format to review? And that is just one download, from many in your investigative workload. How much CDR data is lawfully being obtained but not effectively analysed to its full potential?
“It is no longer acceptable that digital data is not reviewed or analysed to the appropriate consistent standards, due to no access to software solutions, or analytical support.
“It is also a requirement that officers, and staff understand what can be requested and what is and is not possible.”
Mr Fitzmaurice says the review and analysis of digital data is a ‘reasonable line of inquiry’ for most crimes in 2023 and it has been for several years.
“Gone are the days of being only traditional inquiries being considered ‘reasonable’, ie, house to house, CCTV and victim statements,” he says.
“A real gripe of mine has always been the filing of investigations as ‘no further action’ based on ‘one word against another,’ which with the inconsistent and misuse of this rationale, has led to a decrease in victims’ confidence in the police.
“In a lot of cases, we have a reliable and credible ‘digital witness’ waiting in the wings, ready to corroborate a victim(s) and witness(es) account, be that via the analysis of communication data records, handset extractions or ANPR. However, it is not being used to its full potential.
“Software solutions and training has now made this analysis, accessible to officers and staff.
“How many cases could we revisit and say, ‘if we analysed the available digital data, we could have done more,’ I know first-hand, positive outcomes would have been higher, more convictions, increased victim confidence and ultimately saved lives and prevented further victims of crime.”
Mr Fitzmaurice says we must enable officers and staff with the right training, tools, and skills to do the job, adding: “ If they are required to investigate crimes with a digital footprint, then it is reasonable that they are enabled to evidence digital data.
“The fantastic work of the Operation Atlas teams within the Metropolitan Police Service demonstrates the power of enabling frontline officers tackling VAWG.
Read the full article at https://www.techuk.org/resource/victims-are-not-alone-tackling-vawg-and-rasso-impact-days.html
Transforming the victim experience through User-Centred Design
‘User-Centred Design’ (UCD), with its focus on empathising with user needs and identifying pain points to make improvements to their experience, has come to the forefront of government and business improvements in recent years.
In its blog for the Tackling VAWG and RASSO Impact Days, PwC says taking a human-led and tech-powered approach to UCD to drive improvement for victims of crime, means not only are services more likely to be fit for purpose, but more importantly victims will feel empowered and valued as a result.
“UCD supports us to first understand the problem before developing solutions, with the victim’s voice as the golden thread across all transformation – and technology can help us along the way,” says PwC.
“With technology underpinning this work at every stage, we can bolster our findings and seek to accelerate improvements.” PwC says this can include:
- Mapping the victim’s journey – By considering the use of software applications, such as service blueprint and journey mapping tools, investigators can quickly consolidate and plot key findings, enabling them to easily visualise the challenges throughout the case. This enables organisations to identify where delays are experienced, or perhaps where duplicative processes have emerged, that may cause the victim to have to repeatedly retell their traumatic experience to multiple professionals in order to access the services they need.
- Telling the story – Communication tools can be utilised to support victims to tell their story. This can be both in court – through live video testimony – and through the development of video case studies that can be used in trauma-informed training to help professionals recognise and mitigate the impact of their actions.
- An evidence base for change – Quantitative data and powerful analytics tools can be used to develop deeper insights to give power to findings and give further credibility to any case for change.
- Transforming the experience – Using cloud technology, such as CRM and case management platforms, can provide a unified experience for victims across all organisational touchpoints. Automation technologies can also manage victim updates, and integration platforms can enable seamless working across all relevant services and organisations.
Improving the criminal justice response to rape and sexual violence in a human way
Research conducted by Accenture found people want simplicity, humanity and security in their interactions with public service organisations, and this is never more evident than in the reporting sexual violence to police.
In a blog for the Tackling VAWG and RASSO Impact Days, Accenture says to improve the response to rape and sexual violence requires a holistic whole-system response from across policing, health, criminal justice and the women’s sector, incorporating process, technological and legislative change.
While good progress has been made, Accenture says there is always more that can be done, adding: “The reality is that the process of reporting a sexual crime is often a challenging, intrusive and difficult experience. Some survivors may decide not to report the crime because they don’t want to interact with the police and the wider criminal justice system. For example, in the UK today, only 16 per cent of survivors report rape and serious sexual offences to the police, and just 1.6 per cent of those reported result in a charge.
“For the minority that do report, the nature of police interviews can make survivors feel as if they are the ones under investigation. This dynamic can create additional trauma and amplify any existing mistrust of the criminal justice system.
“In our increasingly digital world, where we all live our lives through our smartphones, it’s become standard practice for police to download large volumes of information from survivors’ smartphones to investigate and preserve digital forensic evidence.
“When survivors’ phones are taken for evidence collections, it can feel like they are the ones being investigated, and it takes away an important lifeline to family and friends.
“Once their data is downloaded by the police, it can feel like they have lost control of it. Further, the option to have their digital material preserved is only afforded to those survivors that come forward and report to the police. In the end, many survivors – 43 per cent in the UK – who report to the police get so overwhelmed with the investigative process that they ultimately drop out before the case concludes.”
When survivors’ phones are taken for evidence collections, it can feel like they are the ones being investigated, and it takes away an important lifeline to family and friends
Accenture says it has been involved in developing a solution that combines this survivor-focused view of reporting and investigation of sexual violence with new digital technologies, which enables a completely different experience for survivors. This includes:
Access – Survivors have a physical place in a healthcare setting separate from the police where they can have their physical and digital forensics collected and stored at the earliest opportunity and securely stored until they feel ready to report to police – if at all.
Support – In addition to having access to healthcare professionals, survivors have a trained ‘data guardian’ who guides them through the data collection process and explains their rights related to data requests.
Empowerment – Survivors’ digital forensic data is downloaded rapidly and held in a secure vault independent of the police. They also have a secure and simple application on their phone for providing their consent to share their data as part of the investigative process. Survivors have full control over what data is shared.
Accenture says: “The benefits of creating a simple, human and secure experience for survivors are both immediate and far-reaching. The key is establishing a new way of working that increases survivors trust and confidence in the professionals they are interacting with, ultimately encouraging more people to come forwards and report, and stay engaged throughout the justice process leading to more charges and convictions.”
Supporting domestic violence victims with technology
Capita is testing technology with a number of police forces and its partner Scram Systems that can offer increased levels of protection and support to vulnerable individuals, victims of domestic abuse and VAWG.
A video submitted for the Tackling VAWG and RASSO Impact Days by Nick Stevens, solution consultant at Capita, explains how this enhanced electronic monitoring service will monitor and manage the proximity between a victim and a perpetrator to:
- Protect victims from potential crime;
- Reduce the fear of crime for a victim;
- Help reduce re-offending;
- Provide police real-time information; and
- Provide evidence to support criminal charges that can lead to successful prosecution.
Visit https://www.techuk.org to read all the submissions to the ‘Tackling VAWG and RASSO with Tech’ Impact Days.