An evaluation of the ‘open source internet research tool’: a user-centred and participatory design approach with UK law enforcement

PhD Thesis

Williams, J. 2018. An evaluation of the ‘open source internet research tool’: a user-centred and participatory design approach with UK law enforcement. PhD Thesis Canterbury Christ Church University Faculty of Social and Applied Sciences
AuthorsWilliams, J.
TypePhD Thesis
Qualification namePhD

As part of their routine investigations, law enforcement conducts open source research; that is, investigating and researching using publicly available information online. Historically, the notion of collecting open sources of information is as ingrained as the concept of intelligence itself. However, utilising open source research in UK law enforcement is a relatively new concept not generally, or practically, considered until after the civil unrest seen in the UK’s major cities in the summer of 2011.

While open source research focuses on the understanding of bein‘publicly available’, there are legal, ethical and procedural issues that law enforcement must consider. This asks the following mainresearch question: What constraints do law enforcement face when conducting open source research? From a legal perspective, law enforcement officials must ensure their actions are necessary and proportionate, more so where an individual’s privacy is concerned under human rights legislation and data protection laws such as the General Data Protection Regulation. Privacy issues appear, though, when considering the boom and usage of social media, where lines can be easily blurred as to what is public and private.

Guidance from Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) and, now, the National Police Chief’s Council (NPCC) tends to be non-committal in tone, but nods towards obtaining legal authorisation under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) 2000 when conducting what may be ‘directed surveillance’. RIPA, however, pre-dates the modern era of social media by several years, so its applicability as the de-facto piece of legislation for conducting higher levels of open source research is called into question. 22 semi-structured interviews with law enforcement officials were conducted and discovered a grey area surrounding legal authorities when conducting open source research.

From a technical and procedural aspect of conducting open source research, officers used a variety of software tools that would vary both in price and quality, with no standard toolset. This was evidenced from 20 questionnaire responses from 12 police forces within the UK. In an attempt to bring about standardisation, the College of Policing’s Research, Identifying and Tracing the Electronic Suspect (RITES) course recommended several capturing and productivity tools. Trainers on the RITES course, however, soon discovered the cognitive overload this had on the cohort, who would often spend more time learning to use the tools than learn about open source research techniques.

The problem highlighted above prompted the creation of Open Source Internet Research Tool (OSIRT); an all-in-one browser for conducting open source research. OSIRT’s creation followed the user-centred design (UCD) method, with two phases of development using the software engineering methodologies ‘throwaway prototyping’, for the prototype version, and ‘incremental and iterative development’ for the release version.

OSIRT has since been integrated into the RITES course, which trains over 100 officers a year, and provides a feedback outlet for OSIRT. System Usability Scale questionnaires administered on RITES courses have shown OSIRT to be usable, with feedback being positive. Beyond the RITES course, surveys, interviews and observations also show OSIRT makes an impact on everyday policing and has reduced the burden officers faced when conducting opens source research.

OSIRT’s impact now reaches beyond the UK and sees usage across the globe. OSIRT contributes to law enforcement output in countries such as the USA, Canada, Australia and even Israel, demonstrating OSIRT’s usefulness and necessity are not only applicable to UK law enforcement.

This thesis makes several contributions both academically and from a practical perspective to law enforcement. The main contributions are:
• Discussion and analysis of the constraints law enforcement within the UK face when conducting open source research from a legal, ethical and procedural perspective.
• Discussion, analysis and reflective discourse surrounding the development of a software tool for law enforcement and the challenges faced in what is a unique development.
• An approach to collaborating with those who are in ‘closed’ environments, such as law enforcement, to create bespoke software. Additionally, this approach offers a method of measuring the value and usefulness of OSIRT with UK law enforcement.
• The creation and integration of OSIRT in to law enforcement and law enforcement training packages.

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Publication process dates
Deposited14 May 2019
Output statusUnpublished
Accepted author manuscript
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