I can see clearly now! Tech innovation in law enforcement

On 23 June 1972, soul singer Johnny Nash released his most popular song: ‘I can see clearly now’. His upbeat classic wasn’t a Pollyanna vision of life, but an argument for changing your perspective by clearing away, or pushing through, the issues that prevent you from seeing clearly. Today, the song is particularly pertinent to technological innovation in law enforcement. Very simply, technology won’t allow us to ‘see all obstacles in our way’; what we need is a clearer perspective of our new operating context.

In response to this challenge, ASPI has released its latest Special Report, I can see clearly now! Technological innovation in Australian law enforcement: A case study of anti-money laundering.

The Australian government’s technology monopolies ended long ago. Technological developments, especially disruptive ones, have been driven primarily by private corporations for at least the past 10 years. Meanwhile, legislative responses to those changes, be they disruptive or otherwise, have been increasingly delayed. The current state of the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979 is a case in point.

Acceleration in the development and use of technology has been matched by changes in the capability of those who would do us harm. In the face of rapid social change, governments have lost more than a technological edge, as the basic considerations of sovereignty and geographical jurisdictions are being challenged.

Law enforcement agencies’ traditional business models for dealing with organised crime are under significant pressure from criminal syndicates that can operate more agile decision-making cycles and exploit seams between jurisdictions and in agencies’ capabilities.

In this context, Australian law enforcement faces an increasing number of challenges from emergent technologies. A key policy challenge underpinning these issues relates to the limited capacity of agencies to introduce innovative strategies in response to disruptive technology. Another is how to make cross-jurisdictional cooperation simpler and easier.

The complexity of responding to the technological innovation challenge isn’t lost on law enforcement or the government. In 2018, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Law Enforcement commenced an inquiry into the impact of new and emerging information and communications technology.

Our research explores technological innovation in law enforcement through a case study of anti-money laundering (AML) provisions. One of the most effective strategies available to law enforcement is the use of AML provisions to disrupt access to funds by non-state actors such as organised crime and terrorist groups.

The report analyses the factors that support or restrict technological innovation in federal law enforcement’s AML efforts. While the research focused on new technologies involving AML, it has broader applications to technological innovation in law enforcement.

We argue that the current AML innovation ecosystem needs to be integrated into a holistic whole-of-government law enforcement innovation program. For this to be successful, strategies to address the dual challenge of disruptive technology and the integration of existing pockets of AML excellence will need to be developed. The initial steps for responding to this challenge should include an analysis of the central assumptions that underpin innovation, policymaking, strategy and finance in this space.

Innovators and strategists alike need to be mindful that predictive analytics aren’t a panacea for foreseeing the future and random events. It’s unlikely that such analytics will foresee inflection points beyond the data used to construct models.

Future technological innovation will largely be undertaken by industry, not government, although governments can drive innovation by investing in science and technology and by setting challenges for industry. Our research revealed the private sector’s perspective is that this reality is having lasting impacts on public sector technological innovation, and so strategic partnerships with businesses need to become the norm.

The evidence seems clear that our way of life will be revolutionised by frequent technological disruptions. While those disruptions will appear outside of conventional thinking, they’ll then be rapidly accepted and normalised. Engaging with such new thinking, new opportunities, new risks and new threats requires cultures of innovation in enforcement and regulatory agencies.

Our research found little evidence that the organisational frameworks for enterprise or portfolio technological innovation in federal law enforcement agencies are fully developed. Despite the existence of various pockets of innovation excellence, there are indicators of cognitive bias in some of the thinking on technological innovation. In many cases, there was a symmetry in agency responses that could also be evidence of the need for greater variation in policy perspectives and advice.

Overall, this research revealed that the focus of technological innovation in AML is often on specific platforms, tools and capabilities at the expense of more strategic thinking.

Innovation in AML is often more akin to a cottage industry in which integration isn’t widely considered. It means technologies aren’t consistently well integrated into organisational strategies, across portfolios, or across the whole of government.

However, by no means does the report argue that technological innovation isn’t occurring, or that agencies don’t have the right people. Rather, the law enforcement sector has the time and capability for disruption of its own. The key to this disruption won’t be ‘innovation theatre’, but far more tangible changes and a commitment to realising those changes.