Police Use of Machine Learning Algorithms Needs New Regulatory Framework

21 Sep 2018

There is an urgent need for regulatory and oversight mechanisms as machine learning tools are used for policing purposes, argues a new report published by the Royal United Services Institute and jointly authored with the University of Winchester.

Key points:

The RUSI report, published in partnership with the Centre for Information Rights, University of Winchester, describes how the police’s use of machine learning algorithms is in its infancy, and ‘the potential outcomes of these tools are still poorly understood’.

While machine learning algorithms are currently being used for limited policing purposes, such as supporting custody decisions, there is potential for the technology to do much more.  The lack of a regulatory and governance framework for its use is concerning.

The report also warns that the incorporation of machine learning into the criminal justice system may have ‘unintended or indirect consequences that are difficult to anticipate’.  The potential benefits of these tools are likewise yet to be fully established.

The report states that ‘it is clear that new technologies must be trialled in a controlled way in order to assess their effectiveness, before being rolled out in an operational environment where they are likely to have a significant impact on citizens’ lives. However, there is currently no clear framework in place for how the police should conduct such trials. What is needed going forward are clear codes of practice to enable police forces to trial new algorithmic tools in a controlled way in order to establish whether or not a certain tool is likely to improve effectiveness of a certain policing function.’

With concerns expressed about the application and accountability of artificial intelligence in wider society, the report argues that ‘it is essential that such experimental innovation is conducted within the bounds of a clear policy framework, and that there are sufficient regulatory and oversight mechanisms in place to ensure fair and legal use of technologies within a live policing environment.’


The report proposes eleven recommendations, including:


  1. This RUSI Whitehall Report is entitled: Machine Learning Algorithms and Police Decision-Making: Legal, Ethical and Regulatory Challenges
  2. Authors: Alexander Babuta is a Research Fellow in the National Security and Resilience studies group at RUSI, Marion Oswald is a Senior Fellow in Law, Director of the Centre for Information Rights at the University of Winchester and Christine Rinik is a Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Winchester.
  3. The paper can be accessed at: https://RUSI.org/MachineLearningPolicing2018
  4. The Centre for Information Rights at the University of Winchester, based in the Department of Law, examines the overlap between information and privacy law and new technologies and methods of data analysis.
  5. The Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI), is the world’s oldest independent defence and security think tank. Its mission is to inform, influence and enhance public debate on a safer and more stable world. RUSI is a research-led institute, producing independent, practical and innovative analysis to address today’s complex challenges.
  6. For further information, and interviews with the author, please contact Saqeb Mueen smueen@rusi.org /+44(0)7917 373 069
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