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The Thin Blue Line

30th August 2021

The Thin Blue Line refers to the concept of the police being the line that prevents society from descending into chaos, the blue referring to the colour of the uniform. The origin of the term came from 1854 when a red uniformed regiment in the Battle of Balaclava formed a long line to halt a cavalry charge from the other side. Their act inspired the phrase “the thin red line” to describe a thinly stretched resource resisting far greater resources.

Europol has now published a report on where to draw the thin blue line in cyberspace. The Cyber Blue Line report highlights the challenges of providing safety and security online and looking the challenges faced in doing so.

The report refers to the opportunities created for criminals and the risks posed to safety and security online. The police have long used new technologies to tackle offending with AI-based approaches, databases and handling large data sets. The advancement of technology has also created significant challenges. In particular, the use of encryption by criminal gangs impedes investigations.

Cyberspace is described as a “new borderless, constantly expanding societal domain, an ‘internet of humans’, from surface web to deep web, and dark web to darknets”. A cybercrime economy has been created with easy access to criminal products and services. The pandemic has created other markets with fake vaccines and counterfeit PPE. It also highlighted the problem of misinformation online with the 5G conspiracy theory and a cyberattack against the European Medicines Agency potentially designed to undermine trust in vaccines.

The emphasis has always been on cybersecurity solutions to online threats, but this focuses primarily on protecting data, networks and systems. What it is to be human, and a society, has not been a focus, leading to a protection governance gap. A new online safety technology sector is evolving, “Safety tech” providers develop technology to facilitate safer online experiences to protect users from harmful content, conduct or contact.

The report’s authors urge more awareness of broader societal issues, recognise social complexity such as young people engaging in hacking and cybercrime and tackle risk-taking behaviours such as sending images of a sexual nature and deploy appropriate interventions. There is also a need to address dark web settings and the criminality allowed by anonymity online.

It is argued that those who make a profit from cyberspace should be involved in the cost of delivering safety and security. Domains exist that are “warrant proof” or beyond the law, and it is these areas that will prove more challenging to monitor and deliver collective security. The ethical complexities of cameras, number plate recognition, facial recognition software, drones, Internet of Things sensors, predictive profiling need to be considered in terms of privacy and civil liberties.

Traditional methods of policing have an ever-decreasing relevance in cyberspace. New technologies need to be developed with stakeholder inclusion and to promote a human-centric approach. Innovative and adaptable approaches are encouraged, such as Estonia’s Web Constable. This concept was established in 2011 and is a dedicated group of police officers who are present online and respond to inquiries from citizens and provide cybersecurity advice.

The ultimate challenge, the report concludes, is one of societal responsibility, “a social imperative to tackle evolving cyber criminality and to maximise the potential advantages if technology and cyberspace.”

“Considering that in cyberspace we may be heading towards disorder”, policing bodies need to work out where on the spectrum they position their activities between total order and total disorder. Where will they draw the thin blue line?

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[Image credit:  By OSeveno – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61482189    ]