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Have we let things get out of balance?

April 17, 2024 by Alistair Enser

Regular readers will know that I am a long-term fan of technology. I’m a firm supporter of anything that makes our lives better, safer and healthier, and it is my strongly held opinion that technology has a firm role to play in our world. And while we don’t want a surveillance state, or to be serving tech overlords, it can do so much to simplify, improve and better our lives.

But I’m not blind to some of the issues that our reliance on technology has created. For me, these issues aren’t around privacy, for example, but something more fundamental. It’s becoming apparent that our use of technology is outpacing our ability to adapt to some of the social, ethical and indeed practical questions being raised, and that organisations that rely on technology often fail to put into place the systems, procedures and resources required to gain its benefits. As a result, we could be failing to react and respond to the insights that technology provides.

Playing catch up

By way of an example, I have written extensively in the past about the crisis in shoplifting and violence faced by UK retailers, and have argued for the role that technology plays in protecting staff and preventing loss. A survey of members of the British Retail Consortium (BRC), which represents all the major chains, found that shoplifting in 10 of the biggest British cities had risen by around 27% in 2023.

Yet one major retailer’s data shows that police failed to respond to 73% of serious retail crimes that were reported, while 44% of retailers in the BRC’s annual crime survey rated the police response as “poor” or “very poor”. So, while the police have to deal with huge demands on their time, it cannot be right that so many retail crimes are left unaddressed. Any amount of video evidence is useless if police forces aren’t given the resources to investigate the incidents captured on camera. And, if criminals know they stand a good chance of getting away with their crimes, then video technology, for example, loses its effect as a deterrent.

Trick or treat

Meanwhile, the outgoing Commissioner for the Retention and Use of Biometric Material, Fraser Sampson, has warned that as many as one in 15 motorists may be using basic anti-ANPR systems, such as reflective number plates, to avoid being picked up on camera.

This means up to two million drivers a day could be wrongly identified for fines by ULEZ (Ultra Low Emission Zone) and speed cameras. So, while the technology is proven, government ambitions for increased road safety and lower emissions are meaningless while motorists are allowed to trick the technology and circumvent the rules with ease.

Gaming the system

Finally, a BBC investigation last week discovered unscrupulous companies providing “express” training for people seeking SIA manned guard licences by reducing the required six days down to just one and a half and waiving applicants through without providing the necessary first aid training.

In response, Paul Greaney KC – legal counsel to the inquiry into the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing – told BBC’s File on Four programme he was “extremely concerned about the safety of the public attending events”, and explained that the inquiry had discovered that, had security staff received proper training, it could have made a “decisive difference” to what happened in Manchester, either by avoiding the attack or aiding the injured. A few, crooked companies are putting the SIA licence, and the faith that businesses and the general public place in the scheme – at considerable risk.

What’s the answer?

The thread that runs through these three examples is a failure to apportion the necessary resources to deal with what, in each instance, is fundamentally a sensible solution to a problem. In two of these instances, the solution is technological: in all three, the consequences of not putting checks, balances, systems and resources in place ‘at the back end is considerable.

So what’s the answer? Well, it’s categorically NOT that we shouldn’t be using technology. Just because the authorities cannot process all the data that surveillance technology delivers is not a reason to switch those systems off. Rather, the lesson is surely that any investment in technology at the front end must be supported by planning and resources to support it at the back end.

In a few notable places, it seems that our adoption of technology has overtaken our ability to keep up. Fears were aired this week that the UK’s dwindling prison capacity may require the judiciary to reassess sentencing, as there aren’t enough prisons for these criminals to be sent to. What is the point, therefore, of all that surveillance technology supporting the criminal justice system if there aren’t sufficient resources in place to handle the additional prisoners?

Why rely on ANPR for key areas of road safety and emissions reduction when so many are getting around the technology with simple measures that only merit a fixed penalty charge if (and it’s a big if!) they are found? Why have a licensing system to ensure security guards are properly trained – and trusted by the public – if unscrupulous companies can buck the system so easily?

Time for the industry to look closely at itself

If these types of firms operate in our industry, they must be struck off, never to work again. Their corrupt abuse of the system puts members of the public at risk and undermines the trust placed in the security industry as a whole.

The system seems unbalanced at present. We are expecting technology to come to our aid, yet while it delivers the insights we need to keep the country safer and make it more efficient, the back end is out of balance.

We must, therefore, ask ourselves – what are we doing proactively as an industry to address that balance? Do we need the BSIA, SIA and other industry bodies to work more closely with the government to ensure that we are aligned? And shouldn’t the government listen more closely to the industry’s expert voice?

I would be interested in your thoughts.