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UK police award £10m contract to automate document redaction

Less time in Acrobat, more time fighting crime

Photo by Bruno Martins / Unsplash

The UK’s Police Digital Service has awarded a £10 million contract for “provision of a police and justice text redaction tool”, which naturally brings two questions to mind. Firstly, what exactly are they looking to redact? And secondly, just how many Sharpies can you buy for £10 million.

The reality is less fanciful, potentially saving days of police officer time when it comes to managing complex cases, particularly those around sexual offenses, because the technology procured means they will no longer have to painstakingly strike out sensitive information from documents.

According to the “awarded contract” notice published in March, the Police Digital Service wanted a solution spanning software, licencing and support as well as maintenance and eLearning training. The platform must also provide a full audit trail of activities and give forces "the ability to be in control of their data.”

It delivers text redaction across individual or multiple documents simultaneously, which is “intuitive, can identify selected individual and/or recurring text, adheres to PII and data protection regs dynamically, within a range of document formats and handwritten scanned docs.” And it must “integrate with existing systems (such as RMS systems) to enable a smooth transition of data and ensure all redacted documents are linked to a case where applicable.”

DCI Andy Bidmead, a serving officer from Kent seconded to the Police Digital Service, told The Stack the framework means that, rather than going through an extended procurement process with onerous tender documents, forces can buy the tools directly, with a one or two page document.

The agreed framework spans four suppliers: AI and data management specialist aimii; TeraDact, whose product lineup includes RedactorPlus; The London Data Company, which offers data engineering and governance tools; and data analytics consultancy Simpson Associates.

See also: Murder suspect released after 8TB lost in botched US police network migration

Bidmead describes the offering as more of a tool box than a single monolithic solution. “Some of these tools, for example, also do translation. Some of the tools also can redact from handwritten documents.” Forces will be able to purchase the tools in standalone on prem versions, or as a cloud service.

The framework is part of a broader effort to use digital technologies to improve policing, not least in the wake of a review into how police forces handled rape and serious sexual offences, which highlighted concerns around how intrusive digital searches and how personal data is handled.

Bidmead said the PDS faces number of broad challenges, one of which is how the police support victims and witnesses in cases. Bidmead said that a key element of this was “making sure that the digital solutions that are provided empower police to give victims choice.”

Another key issue is “selective extraction”, popularly known as the digital strip search, as well as the analysis and review tools used by police. The fourth challenge, is “around making sure that any outputs are fit for purpose for the criminal justice system as a whole… making sure that the outputs that the police are providing are fit for purpose for a courtroom, for example.” [The broader UK justice system is under immense strain, as it struggles with a rising case backlog and delays delivering ICT projects that were supposed to help matters. ]

When it comes to analysis and review, Bidmean says, it was clear there were emerging capabilities that could help police reduce the “redaction overhead”. That’s because documents handled by the police and shared with other agencies, such as the CPS, as well as parties to cases, necessarily contain sensitive information under the Data Protection Act. And this information must be redacted.

“Passing information through the criminal justice system, the onus is on policing to make sure that when it submits that evidence to the CPS or to any other body that has asked for that document that it adheres to the rules.”

But while a few decades ago a case file was a few pages, Bidmead explains, modern files can amount to a few terrabytes of digital information, making the task of redaction much more challenging.

 “A complex RASSO case we found could take in the order of 100 hours to actually redact all the information, which is significant.”

This was previously done with a marker, while for the last five years the standard tool for this has been Adobe Acrobat, for which the Police Digital Service struck a supply deal with Adobe.

But that only goes so far. “If you've got a document from a mobile phone network provider, and you've got 700 pages, and hundreds and hundreds of phone numbers, that all have to be redacted, then an automated tool suddenly is far more efficient and effective.”

The framework process covers over 250 different requirements, he said, including whether the tools are cyber assured and whether they meet Freedom of Information Request requirements. And how easy they are for regular police officers to use. “We don't want to take them off the front line to do two weeks reduction training.”

As Bidmead notes, a child abuse case can take 20 to 30 hours to redact. “If you can reduce even half of that, that's half, you know, that's 10, 15 hours a member of police staff, or an officer can spend supporting a victim or witnesses.”

Or being more effective on other work, or, “ideally, doing prevention, or to work with society to prevent these things happening in the first place.”

After all, redacting personal and sensitive information is one thing. Scrubbing out crime itself is quite another.

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