Not Exactly RoboCop

August 24th, 2012

West Midlands police have had a few problems with a system designed to pinpoint firearms as they're being used:

Police have admitted that gunfire sensors put up in parts of Birmingham have not been as accurate as hoped.

The Shotspotter Gunshot Location System was introduced where there was a high number of firearm incidents in 2010.

Police said of the 1,618 alerts from the system since November, only two were confirmed gunfire incidents. It also missed four confirmed shootings.


At the time they were put up, West Midlands Police said the devices had about an 85% accuracy rate and could detect a gunshot within 25m (82ft).

The best part is why the system performed so poorly:1


Ch Supt Burgess said the system learnt to detect the sound of gunfire after installation.

Part of the reason Shotspotter had "struggled to work", unlike in the US, was due to the small number of gunshots being fired, he added.

So, not all bad news then.

[Via The Yorkshire Ranter]

  1. Other than "Because someone took the statistics in the company's PowerPoint presentation as gospel.", I mean.

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Watch the skies

November 4th, 2011

From the Department of What Could Go Wrong:

Police in Montgomery County, Texas reportedly plan to deploy drones capable of carrying "less lethal" weapons:

[Michael Buscher, CEO of Vanguard Defense Industries said that their drones …] are designed to carry weapons for local law enforcement. "The aircraft has the capability to have a number of different systems on board. Mostly, for law enforcement, we focus on what we call less lethal systems," he said, including Tazers that can send a jolt to a criminal on the ground or a gun that fires bean bags known as a "stun baton."

From the Department of Cargo Cults:

Nicholas Negroponte appears to have decided that the way to revive the One Laptop Per Child project is to resort to desperate measures:

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project has devised a bizarre plan for deploying its new XO-3 tablet. The organization plans to drop the touchscreen computers from helicopters near remote villages in developing countries. The devices will then be abandoned and left for the villagers to find, distribute, support, and use on their own.

OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte is optimistic that the portable devices – which will be stocked with electronic books – will empower children to learn to read without any external support or instruction.

[Drone story via Bruce Schneier, OLPC story via MetaFilter]

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Rule 34 excerpt

June 3rd, 2011

Charlie Stross has started posting excerpts from his forthcoming novel, Rule 34. It's not as if I was going to give it a miss, but it's still nice to get a sneak peek at the future of policing:

"Afternoon, Inspector. What can I do for ye?"

You smile stiffly at the auxiliary behind the transport desk: "I'm looking for a ride. What have you got?"

He thinks for a moment. "Two wheels, or four?"

"Two will do. Not a bike, though." You're wearing a charcoal grey skirt suit and the police bikes are all standard hybrids, no step-through frames. It's not dignified, and in these straitened times, your career needs all the dignity it can get. "Any segways?"

"Oh aye, mam, I can certainly do one of those for ye!" His face clears, and he beckons you round the counter and into the shed.

A couple of minutes later you're standing on top of a Lothian and Borders Police segway, the breeze blowing your hair back as you dodge the decaying speed pillows on the driveway leading past the stables to the main road. You'd prefer a car, but your team's carbon quota is low, and you'd rather save it for real emergencies. Meanwhile, you take the path at a walk, trying not to lean forward too far.

Police segways come with blues and twos, Taser racks and overdrive: But if you go above walking pace, they invariably lean forward until you resemble a character in an old Roadrunner cartoon. Looking like Wile E. Coyote is undignified, which is not a good way to impress the senior management whether or not you're angling for promotion, especially in the current political climate. (Not that you are angling for promotion, but . . . politics.) So you ride sedately towards Comely Bank Road, and the twitching curtains and discreet perversions of Stockbridge.

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Your secrets are safe with the Met

May 19th, 2011

The Metropolitan Police, on why files relating to the force's investigation of the Whitechapel murders should not be released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request:

Detective Inspector 'D' told the tribunal that unveiling the files could deter informants from coming forward in future, and could even put off members of the public from phoning Crimestoppers or the antiterrorist hotline.

"The interpretation on the street will be that the police have revealed the identity of informants," said 'D'.

"Confidence in the system is maintaining the safety of informants, regardless of age."

Det Insp 'D' said the passage of time did not make publication of informants' identities less sensitive because their descendants could be targeted by criminals with a grudge.

"Look at one of the world's best-known informants, Judas Iscariot. If someone could draw a bloodline from Judas Iscariot to a present day person then that person would face a risk, although I know that seems an extreme example," the officer said.

STOP PRESS: News reports have been received of the murder of a Mr Julian Iscariot of 1 Gethsemane Gardens, Whitechapel, London. Detective Inspector 'D' of Scotland Yard has announced that the Metropolitan Police will be interviewing every Christian in the UK to establish whether they had an alibi for the night in question.

[Via The Morning News]

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Beware of B1-66ER

July 28th, 2010

A cry for funding if ever I heard one:

[…] Writing in IEEE Computer, Professor Noel Sharkey, from the University of Sheffield's Department of Computer Science, along with former Crimewatch presenter Nick Ross and Senior Interpol Advisor, Marc Goodman, warn of a coming robot crime wave in which military and police robots could be open to abuse from criminals.


Professor Sharkey urges fellow scientists and engineers working in robotics to be mindful of crime prevention and build in components in the software to assist with forensic analysis. He and his co-authors call for the police to consider building information databases that could track and trace robot crime, similar to our current fingerprint database system.

Professor Sharkey said: "Robots could assist a vast range of crime from drugs vending to assault and murder to voyeurism and burglary. Robots can't even be detected by the passive IR alarm systems in most of our houses. More pressing though, is the danger that criminals or terrorists will hack into armed military or police robots and pose a threat to life."

"The new crime wave might be 10 or 20 years away, but we should have no doubt it is coming. Robots will be used for crimes because they offer two elements that have always promoted crime: temptation and opportunity. We must act quickly and decisively to head off a pandemic of robot crime."

[Via Kevan Davis]

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True crime

July 8th, 2010

How can you resist a news story that includes this comment from the German police?

"What motivated him to throw a puppy at the Hell's Angels is currently unclear," a police spokesman said.

[Via The Law West of Ealing Broadway]

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Twitter Terrorist II: The Reckoning

May 12th, 2010

Remember Paul Chambers, the Twitter terrorist? Back in January, when the harsh winter was threatening to close Doncaster's Robin Hood airport, he posted:

"Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together, otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!"

Guess what happened next:

I never expected to be charged, but a month later I was: not under the offence of making a bomb threat, for which I was originally arrested, but under the communications act for the offence of sending a menacing message. […] Even after all the preceding absurdity and near-breakdown-inducing stress, I was confident common sense would prevail in my day in court.

Unfortunately, yesterday I was found guilty and ordered to pay £1,000 in fines and legal costs, which I have to find along with my own legal costs of another £1,000. I am considering an appeal, though I have no means, having left my job due to the circumstances.

I wonder if our new Justice Secretary has any thoughts about whether taking Chambers to court really served the interests of justice.

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April 20th, 2010

Once again, the Metropolitan Police find themselves giving Mark Thomas new material:

Police have paid compensation and apologised to the comedian and activist Mark Thomas after they admitted unlawfully searching him for looking "over-confident" at a demonstration.


The officer said his shoulder bag "may contain such items due to the over-confident attitude of Mr Thomas". He is also said to have told Thomas he "appeared to know what you were talking about" at the rally. The officer added: "If we only stopped and searched people who looked nervous and shifty and didn't stop the ones who looked over-confident you would be able to get one past us," according to legal papers lodged by Thomas, which were not disputed by the police.

[Via GromBlog]

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Twitter terror

February 11th, 2010

Was this tweet from unhappy traveller Paul Chambers in poor taste?

"Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together, otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!"

Perhaps so. Perhaps not. Depends who he was talking to. I'd imagine that any family/friends/acquaintances were following him on Twitter probably knew his sense of humour and, quite possibly, his travel plans.1

Was this a textbook case of an official overreaction?

A week after posting the message on the social networking site, he was arrested under the Terrorism Act and questioned for almost seven hours by detectives who interpreted his post as a security threat. After he was released on bail, he was suspended from work pending an internal investigation, and has, he says, been banned from the Doncaster airport for life.

Hell, yes! Unless, that is, the prosecution reveal that their trawl through Chambers' computer has revealed evidence that he actually is a spectacularly dim terrorist wannabe.

I'm not going to hold my breath.

As an added bonus, I'll bet Chambers will be on various watch lists for the rest of his days, or until officials everywhere develop a sense of proportion in dealing with 'terrorist threats.'2

[Via Groc's various musings]

  1. He was due to fly out from the airport the following week.
  2. Again, I won't be holding my breath while I await the blessed day.

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Not approved by the Warsaw Tourist Board

July 30th, 2009

Maciej Cegłowski describes the Polish constabulary in action:

If you are ever, ever in Warsaw, I highly recommend you flag down a passing cop car and tell them you've been assaulted. You will meet with a kind of unconditional acceptance and emotional support that I didn't know could be found outside one's immediate family. The police will also go apeshit and run around with guns and screaming sirens in a way that very few families do, and for the police it's perfectly legal. I was lucky enough to flag down an entire van full of Warsaw's finest, and they immediately shouted for me to climb in and tell them which way to go. No invasive questions about who I was, no skepticism of any kind, not even questions about what had happened – just an instant desire to kick hooligan ass.

"I was assaulted by four guys just past that bridge!" I yelled when I got in the van. I barely had time to get my foot off the pavement before we were shooting down the highway in the wrong direction, sirens blaring, shotguns skittering around on the floor.


Believe me, the story gets better from that point onwards…

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As legitimate as before

June 18th, 2009

Lord Carlile's annual review of anti-terrorism legislation contained good news for harrassed photographers:

[Lord Carlile said…] It should be emphasised that photography of the police by the media or amateurs remains as legitimate as before, unless the photograph is likely to be of use to a terrorist. This is a high bar.

It is inexcusable for police officers ever to use this provision to interfere with the rights of individuals to take photographs.

The police must adjust to the undoubted fact that the scrutiny of them by members of the public is at least proportional to any increase in police powers – given the ubiquity of photograph and video-enabled mobile phones.
[Emphasis added]

That last paragraph is particularly welcome. To put it another way: "With great power there must also come – great responsibility."

[Via Memex 1.1]

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April 23rd, 2009

Is it just me, or did Sir Paul Stephenson, commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, leave an enormous loophole when he spoke about taking action against Met officers who had removed or hidden their number badges before going into action on the day of the G20 summit:

The commissioner, who has spoken personally to TSG officers in a bid to raise their morale, said all knew they were individually accountable for their actions.

He said officers who were found to have deliberately hidden their numbers would be severely disciplined. "If someone is trying to deliberately avoid being identified and their reason is so they can behave inappropriately, criminally, then of course they could face the sack," Stephenson said. [Emphasis added]

So if an officer is identified as having removed his or her numbers how, exactly, does one assess whether they did so in order to facilitate criminal or inappropriate behaviour?1 The whole point of officers wearing their numbers is that it facilitates holding them accountable for the way their wield their powers: why is it necessary to establish both that an officer removed their numbers and the officer's intent in doing so?

Perhaps Sir Paul misspoke, and what he meant to say was "If someone is trying to deliberately avoid being identified our default assumption must be that their reason was so they could abuse their position by behaving inappropriately, criminally, and therefore of course they should face the sack."

  1. There will no doubt be some cases where officers were caught misbehaving on camera and were identifiable by means other than their numbers. But there will be others who, because they weren't wearing numbers, can't be linked to a specific incident. If you can't identify an officer, you can't link them to their behaviour.

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Breathalysers for PCs

December 14th, 2008

If wishes were horses…

Detective Superintendent Charlie McMurdie, architect of the UK's Police Central E-crime Unit (PCeU), said frontline police ideally need a digital forensic tool as easy to use as the breathalyser, to help them deal with growing numbers of computers being seized during raids on suspects' homes.

There's what they need and what's feasible.

McMurdie said such a tool could run on suspects' machines, identify illegal activity – such as credit card fraud or selling stolen goods online – and retrieve relevant evidence.

The question is, what does Detective Superintendent McMurdie mean here? If she's talking about a program that can be told which credit card numbers/email addresses the police suspect were involved in the commission of a crime and will search the PC's hard disk for evidence of those details – a sort of targeted version of the desktop search features that most modern PCs have – I can see that being a useful program to have.

If she thinks that someone can write her a program that will identify evidence of transactions, emails and online activity that might be suspicious without any prior indication of specific details to look for, I think she's going to need a much bigger budget.1

The tool is part of a package of measures envisaged by McMurdie as one day coming out of the £7m PCeU, which from spring next year will co-ordinate law enforcement of all online offences and lead national investigations into the most serious e-crime cases.

One of the themes that kept popping up during the interview was that there are huge backlogs of requests for digital forensic work and this is what drives the desire for a magical black box to find evidence of crime. Wouldn't it be better to divert the resources they might spend on this sort of software development to, say, paying for more specialists in digital forensic work?

What worries me is that the officer leading the PCeU can come out and say something like this:

"[Look at…] breathalysers – I am not a scientist, I could not do a chemical test on somebody when they are arrested for drink driving but I have a tool that tells me when to bring somebody in."

A breathalyser measures the blood/alcohol level in a physical sample: if the ratio is above a certain level that indicates that a crime has been committed, barring evidence of inaccuracy in the measurement or procedural screwups by the arresting officer.

The magical device Detective Superintendent McMurdie would like to develop would have to search a multitude of types of data in a potentially huge range of formats (possibly encrypted) in a computer's memory and backing store. Unless the police know at the outset of the search that they are looking for a copy of an email to a particular person or of a visit to a particular web page, it's hard to see how the tool can know that it's found evidence of illegal activities. That problem is several orders of magnitude more complicated than a breathalyser. It'd be nice to think that she realises that.

[Via Open Rights Group mailing list]

  1. But then, I'm sure that when her computer scientists develop a working AI the financial returns from licensing the technology will turn the PCeU a tidy profit.

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