A shared confidence: A summary of how law enforcement agencies use sensitive intelligence
To do this, we inspected the approach taken to sensitive intelligence by the organisations that make up the Sensitive Intelligence Network (SIN). We found some excellent work led by committed people working in a complex and difficult environment.
But we also found too many examples of inconsistency in approaches to governance, IT and evaluation. This inhibits effective use of sensitive intelligence and undermines the confidence between agencies that shared standards are recognised, applied and followed.
We make 14 recommendations aimed at improving the effectiveness of sensitive intelligence in tackling SOC.
Policies, structures and processes
At the time of our inspection, the SIN was made up of 18 law enforcement agencies, including the National Crime Agency (NCA) and the nine regional organised crime units (ROCUs).
We found that development of the SIN has been slow. In our view, it operates more as an oversight body than a distinct governance structure. As a result, there is a lack of national policy and minimum standards. This was shown by the absence of a nationally agreed definition of sensitive intelligence. Progress has been made, but more is needed. For example, the planned move to formal accreditation of sensitive intelligence units (SIUs), rather than the existing regime of assurance visits, should be accelerated.
A common theme we found was the use of material gathered by the interception of communications, known as targeted interception (TI). For many that we spoke with during this inspection, the terms sensitive intelligence and TI were interchangeable. Despite our wide-ranging definition of sensitive intelligence, it was immediately apparent most conversation, and indeed most contention, centred on this specific intelligence-gathering technique. This is reflected in the contents of this report.
We found a marked difference in the way the NCA operated in this area, compared to other intercepting authorities. This included a historic difference in interpreting legislation governing this area of covert policing. This has led to inefficient practices. There is an opportunity to review these interpretations and use intelligence more effectively as a result.
We compared some elements with the national structure for sharing intelligence in counter-terrorism policing. We found evidence of the benefits of a single intelligence network with consistent approaches to policy, prioritisation, technology, training and learning all under one command. It makes a good argument to explore similar arrangements for SOC intelligence.
Unconnected and incompatible IT systems are long-standing problems for law enforcement staff managing sensitive intelligence. This reduces their ability to share and use it. In practice, SIUs are forced to rely on the varying quality of individual IT systems and the goodwill of senior officers in charge of those systems. Neither can be guaranteed.
Some regional analysts can’t access the intelligence systems of the constituent forces of ROCUs. This restricts their work. The absence of a single national secure IT platform for sharing secret intelligence throughout national agencies, regional units, forces, and even individuals based in the same room requires several ineffective and inefficient ‘work-arounds’. As we set out in our 2021 report on the effectiveness of ROCUs, a solution should be found.
Where a national IT system does exist, such as the Police National Database (PND), we found it wasn’t universally used. We found a few examples of forces choosing not to use the PND for sharing sensitive intelligence. This was due to a lack of confidence in the security of intelligence because of inappropriate access in some forces. This undermines the effectiveness of the database and needs to be rectified.
The limitations of IT systems associated with managing TI was a common cause for concern. The current dissemination platform is no longer fit for purpose – if it ever was. To overcome some of platform’s deficiencies, most ROCUs have developed and adopted secret local area networks (SLANs) they are secret due to their supposed security level status. Neither the SIN nor the NCA has provided sufficient leadership on using SLANs. This has led to inconsistent standards and practices that should surprise no one. The SIN and the NCA should give SIUs the clarity they need on this.
It is of absolute importance that these IT systems meet the future needs of law enforcement.
Training, learning and culture
We were pleased to find widespread adoption of the Intelligence Professionalisation Programme (IPP) provided by the College of Policing. There is also a concerted effort to tailor and standardise training for staff working with sensitive intelligence. The SIN is bringing together different training programmes for SIUs into a single cohesive approach.
It is important that senior leaders understand the significance of organisational legacy and cultures, and that they are continually evolving. In many respects,
understanding legacy and culture is as important as governance, technology and training. We received a mix of views from interviewees when asked about culture.
Once again, the TI process was a prominent subject. We found that senior leaders recognised the need to influence existing cultures and had set about doing so. However, the ambition for change is greater in some quarters than others. We found differing appetites for change at senior levels, leading to contention. The NCA’s Project Harmproof offers a real opportunity to positively influence well-established practices within the agency at all levels to prevent intelligence failure. It should also be used as an opportunity for improving intelligence sharing arrangements with the wider law enforcement community.
Effective use and evaluation of sensitive intelligence
Despite the cost and resource intensive nature of sensitive intelligence, we were surprised to find little in the way of a standard approach to how it should be evaluated, or what it could be used for.
Analytical support is often not used in the right areas to exploit sensitive intelligence to the fullest. When analysts were deployed to the right areas, we found that they didn’t have sufficient access to the right intelligence databases to make the most of it.
Evaluation of the effective use of sensitive intelligence and the value for money it represents is also inconsistent. More needs to be done to make sure this area is fully understood.
- By 31 December 2021, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for serious and organised crime and the Director General of the NCA should define the term ‘sensitive intelligence’.
- By 1 July 2022, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for serious organised crime should establish an accreditation process for sensitive intelligence units.
- By 1 July 2022, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for serious organised crime should establish standard operating procedures for managing sensitive intelligence.
- By 1 July 2022, the Director General of the NCA should establish a process for identifying, evaluating and, if appropriate, adopting best practice from other intercepting authorities.
- By 31 December 2021, the Director General of the NCA should give guidance to staff on its interpretation of the Investigatory Powers Act 2016, specifically the terms “minimum that is necessary” and “authorised purposes”.
- By 1 July 2022, the Home Office should consider the benefits of a national serious organised crime intelligence structure.
- By 28 February 2023, the Home Office should work with the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for serious organised crime and the Director General of the NCA to devise a technical solution to make exchanging sensitive intelligence between organisations more efficient and effective.
- By 31 December 2021, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for the Police National Database should give guidance on access permissions in relation to sensitive intelligence. Chief constables should comply with that guidance.
- By 1 July 2022, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for serious and organised crime should set standards to make sure that each regional sensitive intelligence unit has full and ready access to all intelligence systems of each force in their region. Chief constables should comply with those standards.
- By 1 July 2022, the Director General of the NCA and the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for serious and organised crime should agree appropriate access for the NCA to all regional sensitive intelligence unit intelligence databases.
- With immediate effect, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for serious organised crime and the Director General of the NCA should implement a method for the analysis of targeted intercept material within sensitive intelligence units that meets the operational needs of all parties. This should be formalised with a memorandum of understanding and standard operating procedures. Compliance with these procedures should then be tested in an accreditation process.
- With immediate effect, the Home Office should make sure that the sensitive intelligence network’s user requirements are considered in the design stage of the replacement interception dissemination platform, Themis, and that the network is invited onto the Themis implementation oversight board as a full and equal member.
- By 1 July 2022, the Director General of the NCA and the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for serious organised crime should make sure that the principles of Project Harmproof, designed to minimise the likelihood of intelligence failure, are embedded across the SIN.
- By 31 December 2021, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for serious and organised crime and the Director General of the NCA should give guidance on how sensitive intelligence should be used to consistently inform the MoRiLE, organised crime group mapping and serious organised crime system tasking processes.