College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences

Digital crime fight carries risk, experts say

Digital advertising and surveillance tools are giving UK law enforcement agencies ‘powerful and potentially risky’ new capacities to influence the public, research suggests.


Analysis of how agencies use digital platforms, targeted advertising and social media influencers to tackle crime reveals examples of ‘serious harm and ethical breaches’.

The Edinburgh-led study into the rise of so-called ‘influence policing’ has found a wide variation in the use of digital communications between different forces.

Influence policing is part of an emerging digital phenomenon – known as ‘nudge’ campaigning – which encourages people to make decisions that are in their broad self-interest.

The approach is used by police forces and law enforcement agencies to directly achieve strategic policing outcomes.

These go beyond ‘information’ campaigns – which simply tell or ask the public to do something – and instead incorporate psychological design elements that influence individual behaviour choices.

Nationwide analysis

Researchers analysed how UK crime enforcement agencies use these ‘influence’ approaches across a range of social media platforms.

They did so by trawling a searchable database of information about ads currently running on platforms including Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram.

The team also studied the approach taken by Police Scotland’s strategic communications team and its use of targeted digital communications in crime prevention initiatives.

Different bodies are using the same tools in radically different ways, according to lead researcher Dr Ben Collier, a Lecturer in Digital Methods at Edinburgh.

Some are engaging directly with communities to support them, says Dr Collier, while others are using stereotyped or invasive targeting for harmful and unaccountable campaigns.

Ethical breaches

The study found that Police Scotland avoided many of the invasive aspects of influence policing but, elsewhere in the UK, there are examples of ‘serious harm and ethical breaches’.

 “While we have found many examples of positive and innovative practice, we have also found serious harm and ethical breaches in the wider spread of these practices in the UK.”

Researchers found a distinctive model emerging in Police Scotland that avoids many of the invasive aspects being used in the wider UK landscape.

Police Scotland’s approach is facilitated by an accountability structure that is more centralised than those found in other UK forces, the study team says.

Greater transparency

Study recommendations include a call for regulation and greater transparency, with an open register of digital campaigns by public sector bodies that details their targeting approaches.

“If these methods are to become part of the future ‘toolkit’ of law enforcement, then they need to be transparent and accountable to the public,” Dr Collier concludes.

Academics from the Universities of Edinburgh, Strathclyde and Cambridge, as well as Edinburgh Napier University, carried out the research.

The study was funded by the Scottish Institute for Policing Research (SIPR), based at Edinburgh Napier University.

Related links

School of Social and Political Science

Scottish Institute for Policing Research