The government has announced further funding for police mobile data devices, intended to equip those forces which received no funding in the initial push announced last year.
The idea is that having access to the police network while in the field will let officers return to stations less often, spend less time trying to find things out on voice channels and complete fewer handwritten forms, so spending more time on frontline duties.
Some £50m in funds was announced last May, and many forces and groups of forces bid for new tech at that point - following on from early adopters like the British Transport Police, whose coppers have been carrying GPRS-equipped handhelds and "slim printers" (for issuing time-consuming legally required forms, for instance after a stop-and-search, which would normally be completed using a pen) since 2006.
However, many forces either didn't bid or were unsuccessful last year, and the Home Office, as was expected, has now announced a further £30m to be distributed to 25 more forces and two national bodies - the Serious and Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) and the Terrorism and Allied Matters bureau of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO).
The programme is being run on behalf of the Home Office by the National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA), the technical body responsible for central police databases such as the Police National Computer, the fingerprint and DNA records, firearms licence register and so forth. In many cases it is NPIA data which coppers equipped with mobile devices will be accessing, especially that from the Police National Computer.
NPIA spokesman Valentine Murombe-Chivero confirmed to the Reg this morning that, as with the first phase, a variety of different devices will be used by different forces and groups of forces. Popular solutions include various models of BlackBerry, but some will be using other platforms.
In every case, devices will have to conform to security standards set by the Communication Electronics Security Group (CESG) - the defensive side of the UK's secretive spook listening agency, GCHQ. This will include the use of strong encryption on the data channels used - whether commercial mobile services or government TETRA - and the devices themselves will not store any data onboard, effectively keeping all information in the NPIA's private cloud.
Murombe-Chivero said that many devices would include cameras, which would let officers send in photographs if they needed to. However, mobile fingerprint-checking devices are run under a different project known as "Lantern" and are still at a pilot stage. A further 130 "Lantern" fingerprint-check devices were deployed last Novermber, drawing protests from privacy campaigners, but the new mobile-data gadgets now getting extra funds - 10,000 of which are already in officers' hands - are intended primarily for accessing criminal records or intelligence data and sending reports in to stations.
For now at least, the vast majority of the new devices cannot be used for fingerprint checks. That said, police sources told the Reg last year that some forces' scene-of-crime-officers (SOCOs, civilian forensics personnel) now have portable, networked laptop-and-scanner setups which can send in fingerprints from crime scenes as opposed to directly from a suspect's finger.
According to the Home Office and the NPIA, use of mobile devices will save officers 30 minutes per shift, time which would normally be spent going to and from stations, getting information over voice channels or laboriously filling out repetitive forms in pen.
"This is great news for the police service," said Chief Constable Peter Neyroud, boss of the NPIA.
"Mobile computers are critical to a modern police officer. Officers who have access to databases, such as the Police National Computer, command and control and intelligence systems while out on patrol, are spending less time returning to the station and more time on the frontline - therefore increasing visibility and reassuring the public.
"Phase two of the initiative will build on this success and enable more officers to take advantage of the benefits of mobile devices." ®