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Ethical Law Enforcement

Ethical Law Enforcement

Enhancing understanding of the ethical implications of covert security

Covert security measures, whether undercover policing operations or data-driven surveillance technologies, present complex moral challenges for organisations using these methods to fight serious crime. Understanding these challenges, and how risks can be mitigated, is crucial in developing ethically sound and effective security policies.

Research conducted by Warwick’s Interdisciplinary Ethics Research Group (IERG) is supporting the UK government and law enforcement bodies in examining the potential ethical consequences of policies and procedures implemented to protect citizens.

The challenge

As methods used by criminals become increasingly sophisticated, so too are the technological interventions used by law enforcement authorities to prevent and prosecute crimes. Moral conflicts arise about the obligation to protect society from the most serious threats, whilst upholding individual and institutional rights to privacy.

Our approach

IERG researchers Professor Tom Sorell, Dr John Guelke, Dr Katerina Hadjimatheou and Dr Chris Nathan have supported a range of agencies to develop ethically responsible policies and practice, including:

  • Guiding the training of undercover police and influencing new guidelines for covert policing operations

  • Advising the Home Office on the ethical use of biometric and forensic technologies

  • Guiding the ethical use of mass data by West Midlands Police in crime prevention and emergency response operations

Our impact

Recent scandals in UK undercover policing have initiated a public re-examination of continued secrecy regarding cases in which serious historical misconduct is suspected.

Dr Hadjimatheou’s research argues that a blanket “neither confirm nor deny” response to public information requests about undercover operations is contrary to the values of democracy. Her research has prompted greater examination of the use of this stance, and continues to inform Police Covert Authorities Bureau policy.

Contributions by Dr Hadjimatheou and Dr Nathan to College of Policing consultations on the first Authorised Professional Practice (APP) for Undercover Policing have informed the document. The APP outlines how undercover policing should be used to gather legal evidence and intelligence, and enables the public to see the arrangements to manage undercover policing and give confidence that these arrangements are robust.

Professor Sorell’s and Dr Guelke’s work on the ethical use of surveillance technology attracted the attention of the Home Office, leading to the appointment of Professor Sorell to its Biometrics and Forensics Ethics Group (BFEG).

The BFEG considers the ethical impact on society and individuals on areas including collecting, retaining and using human biometric identifiers, such as DNA, fingerprints and face recognition. In his role on BFEG, Professor Sorell has also advised on measures such as the fusing of databases for crime detection, the use of DNA profiles from commercial genealogy databases, and the Home Office biometrics programme as it relates to border control and prisons.

In addition, Professor Sorell’s expertise is resulting in significant influence on aspects of policing in the West Midlands, following his appointment to key committees dedicated to ensuring that West Midlands Police (WMP) operates in an ethically responsible manner. WMP has credited contributions from Professor Sorell for the committees’ work, which was highlighted by the UK government as an example of outstanding practice of ethics governance around modern technology in policing.