The Justice System: a complex service that was never built for cybercrime

samsadasivan
The Startup
Published in
9 min readApr 4, 2020

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I wanted to share this story a couple of months ago. I was reminded recently that sharing is an important thing we need to do in Digital Government. Civic Tech can be an interesting place for design. You are essentially re-assessing a service that at one point, served. You are trying to envision the previous designer's intentions, whilst understanding the underlying challenge that didn’t evolve well with people, culture, and technology.

You begin to understand that you can’t solve the whole service and there is a reason why these systems are in place. However, that doesn’t mean they should continue to exist. By sharing our insights, we can start a dialogue around what these systems are for and if they are indeed serving a person or community.

Understanding that made me realize I wasn’t just a service designer anymore. I had become fully invested as a public servant. I wanted to serve people better. I wanted to understand what better meant.

As a designer, I wanted to change the things that weren’t serving people. However, complex systems are ingrained in most of the public services we use today. They are designed to either dictate a process or to have more control over the outcomes of a service. This was the first challenge and it was catnip for my brain. So I dove in… a little too excited.

Collage of pictures of the team

In fall 2018, as a service designer and public servant, I was a part of a multidisciplinary team that worked with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) to prototype and research a reporting channel for their cybercrime coordination service.

We spoke with:

  • Victims of cybercrime
  • Police of jurisdictions
  • Victim support services
  • Front-line staff ( at agencies)
  • Call center staff
  • Senior support staff
  • Fraud analysts

After speaking to these key actors, we had a realization.

The Justice System was not designed or built to handle cybercrime.

It had become too complex and old to retain the value and trust of the public.

And it wasn’t flexible enough for evolving technology and the criminals exploiting the system.

This is where I want to focus on.

I want to share 3 insights about how the Justice System is missing the mark as a public service as it begins to tackle cybercrime and help people.

Person confused and doesn’t know if they should call 911

1. The public doesn’t really know what the Justice System is for and how it can help them.

Many people assume the police are going to help them get their money back or help them clean up the mess the crime has caused. When in reality, the police are tasked to capture the person who broke the law under the criminal code of Canada. Bringing the focus to helping your community rather than helping you recover from the impact of the crime.

This realization of the system and its purpose generally happens after someone has become a victim of a crime. The expectations of the public waver when it comes to the justice system and front line staff are constantly having to repeat the purpose of the justice system and what they are actually there for. They take on the emotional labor the victims are feeling from the impacts of their crimes, with little capability to help them further because there was no initial awareness that this cybercrime that happened to you, happens to everyone.

When it comes to crimes that involve technology, or cybercrime, victims have a hard time understanding if there was a crime committed. Making it harder to tell their story. They often use phrases like “I lost” or “I should have known better”. They see these crimes as a “disease of the internet” and it's their fault and they weren’t “careful” or “tech-savvy” enough to avoid them.

Person on the computer looking anxious, confused, and sweaty.

Since the scene of the crime is online, it is hard to understand what happened and if you have no one to blame, we often blame ourselves. Creating a feeling of shame and guilt.

A lot of people don’t even know that what happened to them is considered a crime to report.

The word “Stolen” replaces person in the picture

This makes it even harder for people to navigate the justice system and report when the evidence disappears and the scene of the crime is so vague.

Our suggestion

So now realizing that the public’s view of the justice system varies and that cybercrime is not making that narrative easier, we believe that creating a narrative of guidance and education through targeted awareness will be helpful for the justice system as it tackles more crime that involves technology.

Whilst reminding people why this service is informative and valuable to their communities in order to keep each other safe.

There needs to be a dialogue set between the police and the public so that we can better understand where the public is getting lost in the current system. Targeted awareness in digital and tangible outlet channels will help the justice system set a narrative for what it is for, what to avoid, and how it can help you today.

2. We can’t build anything for the Justice System without acknowledging the existing relationship between the public and the police

Historically, the justice system has been burdened by many assumptions we have around integrated technology. We can use technology to create a well-designed form that is easy to use to report a crime, but that doesn’t change people’s comfort with the police, and moreover, their fragile trust that they will have an impact or get value from spending their time to report.

There was one person who described a fraud attempt he experienced while he was on Grindr. Grindr is a geosocial dating app geared towards gay, bi, and trans people. And this is important as he expressed how he would not want to report to the police because he felt they would not take him seriously or believe him. He knew that even going through the reporting process would cause more emotional distress than help him see a potential solution to this crime. It is important to acknowledge that when people do not trust the police, they won’t see what the police are doing to serve their community better. They will only see them as an authority figure (or a force) within their communities.

Even when people do trust the police, many of the folks we deem as “non-reporters” are people who have attempted to report a cybercrime and their expectations of the service were not met. They left this service with the mindset that:

“The police don’t think it’s important enough”

“I’ve found a way to navigate it. I’m not sure what the RCMP can do.”

“I called the police I was waiting so long on the line that I just gave up”

“There don’t appear to be options and I think the police would laugh at me”

Which is not what the front line staff want to leave people with. The police, analysts, and front line staff want to help people. However, they are limited in the ways that they can do so, due to the sheer volume of some of these crimes. Leaving folks with minimal to no follow-ups on their reports and forcing people to resort to other outlet channels like Reddit or Facebook groups where they feel more comfortable to express what had happened to them. By resorting to channels the public feels more comfortable with, this leaves the police with less data to learn from and more people misguided.

Our suggestion

We believe that co-designing with some of the key actors of this system and (if appropriate and ethical for their wellbeing) the victims of these crimes won’t necessarily help foster a better relationship immediately, however it will be the starting point of a different and unique relationship between the police and the public. By understanding where the true pain points are in this service, we can evaluate how to serve people better, even with the constraints of the system.

3. Crime has evolved past the system

The Justice System has been around for a long time. In the Canadian context, the RCMP was established in 1920. They are the oldest policing organization in Canada that has jurisdiction over 6 provinces, 3 territories, and 600 Indigenous communities. We have been adding technology to the system over the years with laptops in patrol cars, hiring digital forensic analysts, and setting up better systems to store our records.

However, criminals are also evolving with technology. And they are very aware of how our system works.

For example:

If the criminal is attempting fraud by calling a U.S. Citizen, from Mumbai and is using a 647 Toronto area code, and then calling themselves the Canadian Revenue Agency (CRA )— Whose jurisdiction is this?

The system sees jurisdiction through physical location and geography, and that doesn’t really exist in cyberspace. Many criminals use fake numbers and online environments to make the scene of the crime scarier for the victim and more difficult for the investigators to do their job within the confines of the system. Cybercrime is known to be one of the easiest forms of fraud to carry out as it is hard to investigate and prosecute. The way we see evidence, the criminal code, and who is responsible for handling this crime is very different when the scene of the crime isn’t a physical location.

It is fair to say that the current value proposition for this service is that “By reporting to the police, we may be able to investigate what happened, and capture the criminal who broke the law.” However if the chances of catching the criminal are so rare and getting financial restitution isn’t what the justice system is supposed to do, what value are we serving to the public reporting these crimes? Just because the government is in control of services like health and justice in Canada, it doesn’t mean people have to use them.

If the value of the system is not understood, other services will pop up and benefit, like this one in Estonia:

A Cyber-policing service that has people post their cyber crimes online and have developers attempt to solve that issue. They train their developers, similar to Uber, and pay them in cryptocurrency.

We don’t know if this is safe or credible but it is providing value and receiving data that the police will not have to learn from.

Our suggestion

We believe that the products we now make for the justice system should be seen as forever prototypes, and never a final product or solution. If technology and culture are evolving, the ways in which we keep each other safe should as well. We encourage new products to change with the research and should not stay stagnate within the justice system. These systems should have dedicated teams, with the passion to research and innovate, along with the public and technology.

All to say…

You can’t solve the whole service and there is a reason why these systems are in place.

And I don’t believe that the solution lies in trying to simplify our complex systems — but rather, we should challenge the outcomes and solutions they provide at a surface level. I want to showcase how our view of a “solution” can and will change over time. You must always design for the people and the system, with the foresight that the system should continue to evolve and change.

If we don’t continue to research, question, and talk about these large “services”, we are accepting a stagnant way of seeing the world around us.

We won’t always solve things as designers, but we should continue to talk about how we can help.

Conclusion

The Justice System needs to create a better line of communication with the public, start to provide direct value for those spending time engaging with their reporting services and iterate on what this service means to people over time. Research and service design will push these conversations forward and encourage people to rethink the public services forced upon them.

(I wanted to share this story to start a conversation about systemic issues, complex systems, and the justice system. If you would like to provide feedback or chat further about this, please reach out 🤙🏾)

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samsadasivan
The Startup

curious designer 🇨🇦 - here to have more conversations around the future of design and its impact on communities - she/her