Pearls in Policing Conference

TOPIC: Technology enabled crime and the impact of environmental change on the police function.

Speaking notes AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty APM
Monday 11 June 2007, 2.15PM

While the nature of policing has traditionally been reactive, it is becoming increasingly important for us to be proactive and prepare for future scenarios.

At the Australian Federal Police we conduct a regular Environment Scan, in which we survey the international political, social, economic and law enforcement environments and aim to predict what the likely policing challenges of the future will be.

Two key areas that are looming as key challenges for the international law enforcement community are:

  • The impact of environmental change and;
  • Technology-enabled crime on the police function.

Impact of environmental change on the police function

The scientific community now has little doubt that the 21st century will see a prolonged period of, largely, human-induced global warming.

Consequences will include increased extreme weather events, rising temperatures and rising sea levels.

These in turn will affect areas such as water availability, agricultural viability, disease levels, flooding and the movement of people.

Such changes raise fundamental questions around human security, survival and stability of nations to the extent that climate change will quickly become the security issue for the 21st century.

It is possible that security could be undermined by phenomena such as:

  • increasing food, water and energy scarcities;
  • increasing unregulated population movements;
  • more frequent and more severe natural disasters;
  • greater health consequences such as pandemics and infectious diseases;
  • pressures on state borders including the emergence of diasporas formed as smaller states are displaced; and
  • The previous five events combining to weaken some states.

Clearly there are medium and long-term policing implications here.

For example, rising sea levels could lead to large-scale displacements of people, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, where some low lying countries could become uninhabitable. This could create much social uncertainty and unrest in that region.

More extreme weather patterns will result in greater death and destruction from natural disasters, adding to the burden on poorer countries and stretching the resources of even the most developed nations. From a policing perspective, this will obviously increase demand for disaster victim identification and rapid-response services.

Extreme weather events and climate-related disasters will also trigger short-term disease spikes but also have more enduring health security consequences, since some infectious diseases will become more widespread as the planet heats up.

Immunisation of police contingents deployed to respond will become critical, but may be problematic as new diseases emerge.

In turn, these factors could combine to weaken some states. The cumulative impact of rising temperatures, sea levels and more mega droughts on agriculture, fresh water and energy could threaten the security of states by reducing their carrying capacity below a minimum threshold, thereby undermining the legitimacy and response capabilities of their governments and jeopardising the security of citizens.

Where climate change coincides with other transnational challenges to security, such as terrorism or pandemic diseases, or adds to pre-existing ethnic and social tensions, then the impact will be magnified.

While many of us are managing already in a rapidly changing policing and security environment, the future environment could also be characterised by higher levels of uncertainty … making it difficult for policing organisations to prepare and manage for possible scenarios.

Just how real is the issue of global warming? The ice age is said to have been characterised by ice sheets covering many parts of both the northern and southern hemispheres. Icebergs were floating off to Portugal from the southern parts of the Australian continent. But that was when we were 5 degrees colder.

Scientists say we are heading towards being three degrees warmer – a differential of 8 degrees1. The half a metre predicted rise in sea levels actually translates into many metres of penetration by sea levels when you consider tidal surges by other weather events.

That leads to predictions of population movements in the order of 150 million people by 2050, but a decade before that, by 2040, just in China alone, the land under cultivation to produce grains and rice may fall by 30 per cent, whereas production needs to increase by about 50 per cent above today's levels just to feed the predicted Chinese population by 20302.

So, how will we police it? This is likely to create a whole new series of law enforcement responses and challenges. And they may not be a model that we can foresee today.

However, it is highly probable that regional cooperative architectures – promoting a more integrated and collaborative response - may evolve further.

For example, the development of innovations such as Jakarta Centre for Law Enforcement Co-operation in Indonesia and the need for standing capacity of law enforcement capabilities could be a priority for governments.

The cycle of policy response by governments could change. The last century has seen governments respond to security issues by deploying defence assets as a first response to be supported by civil and police assets once security has been established. But the new cycle may be to use civil and police assets to shore up borders and border protection in the first instance and then rely upon defence assets once borders are penetrated to the extent that large-scale civil unrest develops.

The final point I would like to make on this subject before moving to technology challenges is the global response to dealing with carbon emissions. At the moment there is debate in some quarters about the efficacy of the Kyoto Agreement. It is not my place to discuss the commitment or otherwise by governments to the Agreement. However, I do see a potential role for police as environmental regulation becomes more critical.

On the one hand we have seen calls for an independent oversight body to ensure that whatever system is adopted is free of political horse-trading which it is claimed has dogged the current protocols where polluters have successfully pressed national governments for favourable treatment thereby corrupting the process3.

But any carbon trading scheme will require regulation and, I suspect, investigation, where corruption or fraud will potentially undermine what is essentially a ‘derivatives' or ‘futures' market. Any role for police in this setting may come a lot sooner than we think.

Technology-enabled crime

The science and technology revolution is the greatest that mankind has ever undergone and will continue to have profound impacts on society over coming decades.

If the pace of change continues at the current rate, then the extent to which we embrace technology between now and 2030 is likely to be beyond our current comprehension.

For example, the next generation of mobile phones and internet platforms will make interception more difficult and communication very easy. The transfer of knowledge and ideas will be almost instantaneous.

In the 80s, futurists used to talk about water wars … people then could not comprehend fighting over water. Today, that is a very different story.
I think technology and biometrics will do exactly the same thing and it will be complex for law enforcement to deal with.
- Human cloning and genetic screening will produce a generation of totally different people, which will have significant law enforcement impacts.

It will raise public policy issues and highlight the inadequacies of legislation and will generate conflicting positions between countries and regions.
- I don't know if people are thinking about these impacts yet in policing, whereas universities and think tanks are.

The way governments create legislation may need to be addressed if policy responses are going to be relied upon to regulate new and emerging technologies.

By 2030, we could see a shift in thinking around what it means to be human. For example, will a separate intelligent robotic element have emerged in society – and what might that mean? While once the preserve of science fiction, the gathering pace of the science and technology revolution means substantial numbers of people and organisations are giving prospects such as this serious consideration. Notable recently was a futuring study commissioned by the UK Office of Science and Innovation's Horizon Scanning Centre entitled "Utopian dream or rise of the machines?" In this it was considered plausible that intelligent robots could exist and, within the next 20 to 50 years, demand the same citizen's rights as humans. If granted, of course society would also have a duty of care, including delivering order and safety, to these new digital citizens. An interesting prospect!

Another possibility, as some suggest, is that human and non human elements may merge to such an extent that there is a substantial difference between ‘humans' of 2030 and those of the the late 20th century. 1970s fiction called these new forms “cyborgs” - a combination of human and non human elements mechanical, software and biological in nature. Their life spans would be substantially greater than our own. There is, of course, a substantial body of scientific literature around how nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science are combining and may combine to enhance human performance and longevity.4 How different might the requirements of these types of humans be for policing – and what might those doing the policing look like? And what fracture lines might develop in society between the traditional and new humans, and the moral and ethical debates which accompany the technological developments?

Public policy issues relating to some technology applications will engender strong public and political debate, encompassing areas such as economic disparity, bioethics, privacy and cultural threats. The debate will generate conflicting positions between countries, regions and various ethnic, religious, cultural and other interest groups. In particular, strong ethical and moral reactions will occur in the biotechnology area, including genetic modification, human cloning, genetic selection of offspring and genetic screening.

Another possible area to explore further may be around the implications technology will have for the balance between privacy and security. Relevant technology applications are likely to include pervasive undetectable sensors and sophisticated sensor networks, radio frequency identification (RFID) for tracking and identifying people, chip implants and biometrics as the sole personal identification.

Such applications have the potential to reshape the notions of “who I am”, “where I go”, “where I live” and, significantly for law enforcement, “who knows”. When coupled with the current terrorism-shaped security environment, law enforcement may be entering a future which is more conducive than ever before to the access and application of vast amounts of data. The implications for law enforcement could be extensive.5

There also remains the potential that within the next two decades we will see the capability to download our brains – this will effectively create cyberimmortality an extension of the ‘second life' phenomenon.

Second Life.Com is already here. In the past ten months, to June 2007, the number of ‘registered residents' on Second Life rose from 300,000 to more than 7.2 million. An average of one million people per month are logging on and subscribing, and more than 68,000 people are logged on at any given time.

‘Lindon Dollars' – the currency of ‘Second Life' are being purchased with real dollars with $US1.7 million being transacted every 24 hours. The first Law Firm has just established itself on Second Life and German Police have recently arrested a male for selling a child ‘avatar' for sex. An avatar is known as the player's physical representation in the game world in the form of a customised two or three-dimensional icon. German authorities are currently investigating allegations of rape on ‘Second Life'.6

Sites such as ‘Second Life' make the virtual real and the real virtual to the extent that characters can be created and are capable of conducting activities such as conversations with absolute anonymity. The use of pseudonyms will make the collection of admissible evidence extraordinarily difficult.


As we consider what the world may be like in 2030 and how police will need to respond, it is highly possible that we will face challenges in the spheres of technology and the environment, which we can't even comprehend yet.

However, as police leaders of today, we are in a position to draw on the expertise and knowledge of leaders from a broad range of disciplines, to help ‘connect the dots' in preparing for future law enforcement challenges.

The consequences of not broadening our minds and getting the formula right will only serve to create more pressure on police in the future because the fallout will be great.

Thank You.


  1. Address by Professor Alan Dupont to AFP Executive Retreat 29 May 2007
  2. Op Cit Dupont
  3. Editorial Weekend Australian 02 June 2007
  4. Eg “Converging technologies for improving human performance”, US National Science Foundation, July 2002.
  5. For elaboration on this refer to the AFP 2005 scenario project on “Identity and Crime in 2012”.
  6. Source AFP High Tech Crime Centre