Research - 11.12.2020 - 00:00 

Study on the use of algorithms by the Swiss police and prosecution authorities

In a study entitled “Smart Criminal Justice”, the Competence Center for Criminal Law and Criminology (SK-HSG) and the Institute for Systemic Management and Public Governance (IMP-HSG) examined the use of algorithms by the Swiss police and prosecution authorities.

11 December 2020. The authors of the study – Dr. Monika Simmler, Simone Brunner and Prof. Dr. Kuno Schedler – conducted the first systematic examination of the extent to which algorithm-based tools are gaining ground in predictive policing, criminal analysis and the prison system.

Study on “Smart Criminal Justice”

The core of the study was the creation of an overview of what algorithmic tools are used in which cantons. In addition, the individual procurement backgrounds, the implementation and use of the tools, the way in which they were developed, the impact they had, the legal basis of the use of technology and its public communication were to be examined. On the basis of personal interviews with 32 people from 14 cantons plus supplementary online interviews, the study reveals that algorithms are already in use in all the cantons but that most of them are not particularly complex, i.e. “smart”.

Paradigm change towards more prevention

The procurement of the tools was driven, in particular, by the paradigm change towards an increasingly preventive orientation of police work (“threat management”) and a higher degree of safety awareness in the prison system. In a particular individual context, the use of such tools often serves to examine or confirm officers’ own gut feeling, provide the assessment process with a clear structure and enable large data sets to be processed efficiently. Public communication or a political debate only takes place in very few cases. In legal terms, the police faced more uncertainties with regard to the processing of personal data – particularly in connection with threat management and in the context of persons likely to threaten public safety. It turned out that all the cantons registered persons regarded as dangerous in a database or on a special list and that such persons are often identified with the help of algorithmic tools. Opportunities for algorithms are primarily seen in computing capacities, increases in efficiency and the qualitative improvement of working processes. Conversely, the risks of algorithms are seen in the lack of transparency or evaluation.

Safeguarding the rule of law

The study identified various fields of action which emerge with a view to the use of algorithms. More competence and know-how will have to be created. The use of algorithms will of necessity require the safeguard of the rule of law, particularly as adequate legal bases do not exist everywhere at this juncture. Finally, it also became evident that there was a need for action with regard to the exploitation of potentials and the identification of hazards in connection with the use of algorithmic tools. The implementation of algorithms can be perceived as an institutional opportunity but will also have to be subjected to critical scrutiny.

Correspondingly, the authors came to the conclusion that a more detailed discussion will have to be conducted about the opportunities and risks of the use of algorithms in police work and the prison system. The modus operandi and the effect of data-based tools should be evaluated by independent researchers who are authorised to supervise the processes. For this reason, the researchers of the University of St.Gallen will continue to address the issues raised by “Smart Criminal Justice”. In January 2020, a book also entitled Smart Criminal Justice will be published open access by Helbing Lichtenhahn Verlag.

Image: Adobe Stock / Pablo Lagarto

Discover our special topics