Police Functional Adaptation to the Digital or Post Digital Age: Discussions with Cybercrime Experts

AuthorGeorgia Meredith,Erin Faulkner,Tim J Wilson,Derek Johnson
Publication Date01 October 2020
Date01 October 2020
Police Functional Adaptation
to the Digital or Post Digital
Age: Discussions with
Cybercrime Experts
Derek Johnson
Northumbria University, UK
Erin Faulkner
Independent Researcher, USA
Georgia Meredith
Independent Researcher, UK
Tim J Wilson
Northumbria University, UK
This article examines the challenges of functional adaptation faced by the police in response to
technologically driven changes in the nature of crime. It also recounts how research under the
auspices of a ‘dark web’ research project resulted in a search for an effective approach to
engaging with investigators dealing with cybercrime. In doing so it tested, as a research
methodology, a standard change implementation tool (problem tree analysis) from the
Disaster Management and Sustainable Development (DMSD) discipline. This in turn resulted in
significant consideration being given to the physical space in which that methodology is used. It
presents the results of a workshop held with cybercrime investigators (not all were police
officers) in terms of the importance of four key organisational and cultural issues (management,
leadership and institutional ethos within the police; the risks of over-complication and exag-
gerated distinctions between cyber and real world policing; ethics; and knowledge, training and
development) alongside the development and acquisition of new technical capabilities.
Cybercrime policing, police organisation, police culture, problem tree analysis, functional
Corresponding author:
Derek Johnson, Department of Geography and Environmental Sciences, Northumbria University, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 8ST,
E-mail: derek.johnson@northumbria.ac.uk
The Journal of Criminal Law
2020, Vol. 84(5) 427–450
ªThe Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0022018320952559
This article describes and reflects upon the initial stages of UK empirical research undertaken as part of
an international research project into the policing of The Onion Router (TOR) network.
TOR is an
easily accessible internet browser and a location for hidden services (market places and internet fora via
TOR web sites) drawing upon anonymity as a core user requirement. Used correctly it offers users the
ability to search the open web without revealing identity, but also to publish web services/sites known as
Tor Hidden Services (THS) anonymously, anonymity being powerfully protected. It is this, together
with other such systems, that make up what is usually referred to as the ‘Dark Web’. For reasons
explained below when we describe the evolution of our research methodology, however, this study is
concerned with two wider questions that confronted the research team early in its work and not with the
TOR network itself.
First, we needed to understand functional adaptation whereby core policing skills and an ethos forged
in the physical world can respond to technologically driven criminological changes, in order to assess the
interrelationship between policing of TOR, as a specialist area of cyber policing, and how criminal
justice as a whole is adapting to the ‘digital’ or ‘post digital’ age.
Understanding the challenges of police adaptation to deal with cybercrime through intrusive police
activity and how the police seek to balance this through their ethical code in addition to respect for laws
that protect human rights, is important for informing policy making and, thus, has a potentially high
social value and impact. However, the new knowledge creation required to achieve this, first requires an
understanding of the contextual situation, including how institutional culture will influence organisa-
tional and individual cooperation, and of the wider environment that has a significant impact on the
problems being examined. Both the varied professional (pre-academic) experience of the research team
(a former police officer, Home Office official, journali st and practising barrister) a nd the existing
academic literature provided important starting points in this endeavour, but we considered that the
research process needed to be grounded in the reality of cybercrime investigators.
The second question that needed to be resolved was to identify an effective approach that would
enable us to explore, with police officers, the process of adaptation required to respond to cybercrime.
We had recognised from the outset that our approach needed to be time-efficient for police officers who
agreed to assist with our work and should also offer them something in return for their time. As indicated
later this became a matter hopefully of the research team becoming ‘givers’ as well as ‘takers’.
Unusually, but perhaps because the research team both within the UK and internationally is multi-
disciplinary, it was decided to test an issue likely to be rarely (if ever) encountered within criminal
justice research literature. We decided to test the suitability for criminal justice empirical research of a
change implementation planning tool (problem tree analysis) used in Disaster Management and Sustain-
able Development (DMSD) work and also to assess the significance of the physical space in which the
workshop was held for the effectiveness of the methodology used.
This article is organised in five main sections. The first section explains the research context. The
second section looks briefly (certainly not comprehensively) at the challenges of functional adaptation to
technologically driven changes, such as cybercrime, within criminal justice. The third section explains
our methodology and the significance of space when planning this research, our initial scoping studies
and a workshop with investigators held in 2019. In essence the development of our approach is an
account of how we sought to reduce significant risks of potential bias and overcome knowledge gen-
eration barriers, often encountered when researching effectively closed groups such as the police. The
1. Police Detectives on the TOR-network: A Study on Tensions Between Privacy and Crime-Fighting funded by NordForsk, the
Economic and Social Sciences Research Council (ESRC) and the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) for
the research protect. See Brants, Johnson and Wilson in this issue.
2. DM Berry, Critical Theory and the Digital (Bloomsbury, London 2015); DM Berry, The Philosophy of Software: Code and
Mediation in the Digital Age (Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke 2016).
428 The Journal of Criminal Law 84(5)

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