Scottish elections: Policing and surveillance

Ahead of May’s elections, Open Rights Group Scotland has selected three areas of focus for our digital rights campaigning. The second area area is policing and surveillance, and how they impact our digital rights as well as our daily lives.

Surveillance technologies

Over the past five years, Police Scotland has introduced various technologies to enhance their law enforcement capabilities. One of these was “cyber kiosks”. Cyber kiosks are specialist hardware-software systems, which resemble small laptops, and are designed to image or extract electronic data held on a variety of digital devices, such as mobile phones.

In 2018 the Justice Sub-Committee on Policing at the Scottish Parliament (see below) began scrutinising the roll-out of cyber kiosks. Their review revealed a complete lack of due diligence prior to the trials: “No assessments i.e. human rights, equalities, community impact assessments and data protection and security assessments were completed prior to trial commencement.” Questions were also raised about the legal basis Police Scotland was using to seize and search electronic devices. 

As a result of these criticisms, Police Scotland established two groups of consultees: an internal stakeholders group, and an external reference group. The latter included civil society groups such as Open Rights Group Scotland, as well as independent regulators, human rights institutions, and solicitors. This work provided additional scrutiny ahead of the roll-out, including an improved explanation of the technologies for the public, clarity on the legal basis for the kiosks’ use, the creation of internal guidance, and the establishment of internal documentation reviews. 

When the cyber kiosks were eventually rolled out to every Scottish police station in early 2020, it was done with more information available in the public domain, greater scrutiny and due diligence, and improved internal governance. But given the issues which surrounded their roll-out, the rethink it forced, and the new processes put into place as a result, we would like to see the Sub-Committee carry out a review of the cyber kiosks system. We want to know if the time and effort have been worth it, if the kiosks are accomplishing the goals which were envisaged, and whether they are being used in a necessary and proportionate manner. It would also be useful to know if the kiosks have been used in the context of enforcing time-bound regulations on lockdown.

Oversight and review

Statutory oversight over policing has always been a point of contention in Scotland, and these challenges have only increased with the consolidation into a single police force. Democratic oversight has obvious advantages over internal oversight, as it is independent and much harder to capture. To provide that oversight, the Scottish Parliament created the Justice Sub-Committee on Policing. Its remit has included reviews into the use of policing technologies. 

From our digital rights perspective, the Sub-Committee has proven itself to be able to react to new developments in policing and, perhaps more importantly from the perspective of emerging technologies, to identify areas which could become problems if not properly scrutinised. 

There were two technology-related areas of work undertaken by the Sub-Committee since the last Parliamentary election: Police Scotland’s digital data and ICT strategy and Facial recognition: how policing in Scotland makes use of this technology. These two reports show the Sub-Committee’s effectiveness at exercising scrutiny and oversight at two different stages of policing operations: the former where technology was awaiting deployment, and the latter where there was a societal interest in the use of an emerging technology.

The Justice Sub-Committee on Policing will finish at the end of this Parliamentary session. It is an optional committee which must be established voluntarily by the Justice Committee. Open Rights Group have enjoyed a good relationship with the Sub-Committee, and we would like to continue working with them in future. More important than our own needs, of course, is the role the Sub-Committee plays as an oversight and scrutiny mechanism. For those reasons, we would like to see the Sub-Committee maintained and renewed.

Our policy positions

We are calling for parties and candidates to commit to the following principles:

  • There will be a review of Scotland’s cyber kiosks roll-out, which will include a discussion of how widely they have been used and how effective they have been;
  • There will be an active commitment to maintain the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Sub-Committee on Policing as an effective and responsible form of oversight over policing technologies.

Ask the candidates

ORG Scotland will be holding a joint human and digital rights hustings with our friends from Amnesty Scotland at 7 PM on Tuesday 20 April. We’ll be putting questions about these topics and others to the candidates. The event is online and free to view. 

Quiz the candidates

Tune into our digital rights hustings on 20 April to see where the parties stand.

Event details