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Emerging tech

On the block: Could blockchain aid policing?

Information silos prevent effective data sharing between police forces. Could distributed ledger technology hold the answer? 

Blockchain or distributed ledger technology (DLT) has yet to live up to the hype, and many of its much-vaunted applications have yet to materialise. But investment and experimentation continue, and governments, including in the UK, are seriously considering its use. And it could yet prove transformational in an area where sharing information securely and in an auditable fashion is essential but difficult: policing.

blockchain policing
Police forces often procure and deploy IT systems regionally, creating data siloes. (Photo by ArtOlympic/Shutterstock)

GlobalData defines blockchain and DLT as a system that enables participants to keep a copy of an immutable proof of transactions in a distributed network, and where transactions can be executed without the need for a single, central, coordinating authority.

While the initial excitement about DLT’s potential has largely dissipated, the technology is slowly making inroads into sectors including finance, logistics, food safety, farming, and healthcare. In July 2020, coffee producers started to use IBM’s blockchain offering to track the origin of production to its final costumers, accessed via a QR code. Earlier this year, Frankfurt Airport deployed a system using Iota Foundation’s DLT to generate a digital Covid-19 test certificate for passengers.

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Government adoption of blockchain

In a further sign of the technology maturing, the UK Parliament set up an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Blockchain (APPG) in February 2020. The group established a two-year agenda to foster blockchain use in the UK public sector, aiming to gather local use-cases for the technology by the end of 2022. This high-level discussion could clear the way for adoption across government, assuming the economics and use-cases stack up.

Other governments have already tested the waters. At the end of 2019, Dubai piloted a blockchain project for information exchange between police, courts, and Dubai Public Prosecution (DPP) when a passport is lost. Before the deployment, citizens needed to request a letter from Dubai Police and get it physically stamped by Dubai courts and prosecutors to receive a new document.

With the new system, Dubai citizens can receive their new passport in one day instead of three days, showing a practical use of blockchain to increase collaboration and secure data exchange across government. The technology was chosen due to its ability to link different public sector databases, which proved to be more cost-efficient than patching different siloed databases or building centralised data storage. The pilot continues, and the Dubai government plans to connect most of its data using blockchain by the end of 2021.

Estonia, meanwhile, is using DLT to manage health records, digital ID and even elections. The technology has allowed Estonians to cast ballots online and have their votes secured by a tamper-proof algorithm. It also underpins Estonia’s digital driving licences, and police officers can check any citizen’s digital IDs automatically against the local Transport Authority’s database. Governments in Finland, Kyrgyzstan, Faroe Islands, Iceland and Japan are now experimenting with the platforms Estonia has developed.

The challenge of sharing police data

Applications in policing have so far been limited but it is an area where the technology could be especially useful.

In Europe, the US and the UK, law enforcement is divided into regional police forces. The UK, for example, has 45 separate police forces, most of which rely on their own procurement divisions and budgets, and have their own priorities.

This diversity leads to a variety of IT systems being procured to fulfil similar functions, creating a patchy and heterogeneous technology landscape. While these systems work well within each police force, issues arise when communication and data sharing is needed across forces. The limited ability to share data often leads to complex bureaucratic processes and slow information exchange.

Blockchain and other DLT could help police to share data, digital assets, and transactions seamlessly. Law enforcement information such as forensic data and digital identity would be stored in blocks, generating an immutable proof of request when a data transaction occurs.

In the UK, the use of blockchain for policing has been debated. The Police Foundation, the UK police’s think tank, published a report in 2017 on possible implications of blockchain use in the criminal justice system. Since then, police forces have shown a slow reaction to it, but recent parliamentary interest through APPG, wider private-sector adoption and more successful implementation cases from other countries could convince police decision-makers to trial the technology in the future.

It is unlikely to happen quickly. Law enforcement is usually slow to adopt new technology due to its decentralised nature. ICT development roadmaps in police take time and a higher level of coordination. In the UK, for example, despite a cloud-first policy being in place since 2013, an estimated 62% of police forces still host more than 25% of their data on-premise. Based on the adoption rate of cloud, we can assume that blockchain-based police systems are still far from being widely implemented.

In addition, for DLT-based systems to work, police forces would need to implement application programming interfaces (APIs) so their siloed databases can intercommunicate. This is another implementation barrier, as a high level of trust in API platforms would be needed before police forces are convinced of its security and secrecy.

Nevertheless, while blockchain and DLT won’t solve all police data issues, it does appear to be a viable option to enhance data collaboration in law enforcement.

Leonardo Freitas is a senior public sector analyst for technology at GlobalData.