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Police watchdog warns tech giants to step up efforts or face regulation

HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary Sir Thomas Winsor has published his annual state of policing report (Dominic Lipinski/PA) Photo: PA Archive/PA Images

Technology companies should brace for “ever-tightening” regulation after failing to do enough to help stop terrorists, paedophiles and organised criminals exploiting their services, the most senior police watchdog for England and Wales has said.

Chief Inspector of Constabulary Sir Thomas Winsor warned internet giants the case for forcing them to comply with requests for data will gather more pace as long as they “continue to devise ways to frustrate law enforcement”.

He singled out challenges linked to the growth of end-to-end encryption, which means messages and communications are encoded so only the sending and receiving devices can read them.

Security chiefs and senior police officers have repeatedly claimed the technology is making the task of disrupting terrorist plots and child abuse more difficult.

Sir Thomas warned the wide availability of “impenetrable” end-to-end encryption services has made life easier for terrorists, paedophiles and organised criminals, and harder for law enforcement.

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He said: “If the giants of that world continue to devise ways to frustrate law enforcement then public opinion will not tolerate it.

“They have a diminishing opportunity to do today what the public need them to be able to do. If they fail in that respect, the case for compulsion will be ever stronger.”

He said it was unacceptable for authorities to be in a position where they may not be able to see the contents of an encrypted device seized in an investigation.

“If the terrorist or criminal had a list of his contacts in a little book in his back pocket, nobody is seriously saying the police would not be able to open that book and use those contents so what’s the difference?” Sir Thomas said.

The chief inspector flagged up the issue in his annual state of policing assessment for 2017.

There is a handful of very large companies with a “highly dominant influence” over how the internet is used, the report noted.

It said: “In too many respects, their record is poor and their reputation tarnished.

“The steps they take to make sure their services cannot be abused by terrorists, paedophiles and organised criminals are inadequate; the commitment they show and their willingness to be held to account are questionable.

“It should come as no surprise if this leads to the establishment and ever-tightening of internet regulation, to compel responsible and proportionate actions which these companies could voluntarily take today.”

Meanwhile, Sir Thomas said there are “no excuses” for shortcomings he routinely encounters in the police’s planning, demand management and resource deployment.

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Too many officers and staff are frustrated by inefficiency, unnecessary bureaucracy and antiquated systems, the assessment found.

Sir Thomas said: “This would not be acceptable in many other organisations in the public sector and the private sector. It should not be acceptable in the police.”

Under a “groundbreaking” new approach, police leaders will be required to measure and report on future demand by producing force management statements.

Elsewhere, the wide-ranging review:

– Described stop and search as a “legitimate tactic” in reducing violent crime and taking knives from those who carry them on the streets;

– Warned telephone investigations now used by a number of forces must not be used as a “cheap way of dealing with a case”;

– Said disclosure failures that have resulted in the collapse of criminal cases “strike at the very heart of our legal system”;

– And called for greater use of artificial intelligence to analyse huge amounts of data held on digital devices.

In conclusion, Sir Thomas said: “Above all, the brave and committed men and women who serve at the frontline of policing need their leaders, in policing and politics, to deal with all the things I have highlighted.”