MALCOLM Graham remembers how cops used to be trained in IT.

“When I started in the police you used to go on a three-week course to learn to use what they called ‘the computer system’,’ says Scotland’s deputy chief constable for crime and operations. “That course started off with the instructor explaining how to use the mouse, how to point at something, how to click on something.”

Graham and his colleagues are still catching up on how to police a digital world - and not just on the technical niceties, but the ethical ones too.

New figures show official police records for cybercrime have more than tripled in the last year.

However, Graham returns to a fairly familiar theme for policing: not all crimes are cyber-crimes, but most crimes have a cyber element. The ‘vast majority,’ in fact, clarifies Graham.

And that means officers need digital tools and skills and, increasingly, legal and ethical understanding of how to to use them.

Last week Graham’s boss, Chief Constable Iain Livingstone, announced that Police Scotland will early next year roll out what the force call ‘digital triage devices’.

Early press reports called these ‘cyber kiosks’.

What are they really? Laptops that let police officers instantly ‘hack’ - not the word the police would use - in to a smartphone at a local station without packing the device off to a lab somewhere for months.

The technology could be revolutionary, not least in getting to the bottom of sex crimes.

Victims and witnesses already routinely hand over their phones to police, voluntarily. So do suspects, usually under a warrant and sometimes voluntarily because they think their phone data will clear them.

The current system can mean waving goodbye to the phone - and everything you need to live and work - for months, as specialist IT investigators crack it open.

The triage devices are designed to make a quick assessment about what, if any, pertinent evidence, there is in a phone.

Graham explains: “The digital triage devices are effectively a lap top you plug the phone in to. You can use the laptop to see what information is on that phone very quickly.”

“The biggest difference is that it is going to allow us to focus on what is important. “Because at the moment we have to trawl through volumes of data in laborious ways without any kind of practical evidential value.

“The beauty of triage devices is that it very quickly will allow us to capture the evidence pertinent to an investigation and therefore very quickly move us towards taking some action against individuals.”

What kind of things could police find? Take threatening behavior. Two thirds of such crimes have a digital footprint. Are there threats or abusive messages on a phone? Or allegations of sexual offenses, a fifth of which are categorised as cybercrimes. Are there messages or images or content that is itself criminal. Or are there communications which cast light on alleged crimes that took place in private, the kind of one-on-one offending that can be hard to corroborate? That applies as much to domestic abuse as to sex crimes.

And your phone can contain so much more than communications, including your financial data, what you have browsed, your emails, calendars, your whole life. It may even cast light on where you have been thanks to different ways of geolocating a device. It can be an alibi. It can help suggest guilt. Or innocence.

The sheer volume of private information on a phone explains why it is such a useful detection tool. It also explains why digital triage devices made privacy rights activists were worried.

Police Scotland was rapped by MSPs last year for carrying out a pilot scheme with such laptops in Stirling and Edinburgh without fully consulting on how people consented to hand over their phones.

Were people really sure they knew what they were getting in to? Were they being helped to understand that their whole world - where they go, where they shop, what they browse, with whom they communicate - was in their phones?

And, crucially, were they being told that they could change their mind?

Holyrood’s policing sub-committee did not think so.

MSPs called a halt un the initial roll-out in April 2018, saying the force’s main watchdog, the Scottish Police Authority, had only heard the upsides of digital triage, not potential concerns.

The sub-committee’s convener, Green MSP and ex-police officer

John Finnie, said: “Even the most fundamental questions, such as the legal basis for using this technology, appear to have been totally overlooked.

“This sub-standard process has resulted in over half a million pounds worth of equipment sitting gathering dust.”

What followed the criticism was a huge exercise in consultation by Police Scotland, involving a huge number of outside organisations, including those critical of the initial pilot schemes, such as Open Rights.

Graham said Police Scotland was ready with a whole package of procedures to ensure nobody is browbeaten in to handing over their entire digital worlds to the police - and that they can change their minds. This includes a leaflet to be taken home by witnesses or victims.

Finnie is satisfied. He said: “It is good that exercise was done, that there was that level of scrutiny and hopefully there will be lessons learned for everybody.”

Livingstone this week said the final release of the devices would wait until the outcome of another review, by the Information Commissioners Office in to the extraction of information in to phones.

In England earlier this year there was controversy earlier this year after police and prosecutors said that victims of sexual crimes would be expected to hand over their phones. That came after a 2018 London rape trial collapsed after belatedly reviewed mobile phone messages undermined the case against the accused.

Everybody in policing and outside knows there will be new technical innovations in detection and prevention of crime. Finnie and his subcommittee are already looking at the ethics and legalities or facial recognition.

Graham believes that the controversy over cracking in to phones and how to manage informed consent has been ‘helpful’ for coming issues. Why? Because it got everybody around a table to think about the issues and how to find ways to resolve them.

He says: “The issue here isn’t really the digital triage devices, it is probably more that general position society finds itself in that developments in digitisation has brought to the fore a huge number of contested issues about the balance of the requirement of the state to protect its citizens against the privacy people have.”

Groups advocating for - and supporting - the victims of sex crimes and domestic abuse - were among those taking part in Police Scotland’s consultations. One of the things they were eager to see was a faster resolution of cases thanks to quick extraction of phone data.

Graham says: “The feedback we are getting from victim-centred groups is that you need to make sure people are not losing their phone for a year. They are on a contract, they have bought a phone, it’s an expensive device with all the information on it that they need to live their lives.”

But there is a balance. Graham says: “In the future we will be looking at developing more tactics and techniques that allow us to access information.

“We can now use [the digital triage device consultation] as a model for how we both reassure and seek advice for people on how we start it tackle some of these really difficult issues.”

Graham and senior officers are clear on one thing. It is not for them to set the rules on these privacy rights issues.

He concludes: “This is a debate, I think, that is ongoing in society. We need to be a part of that but I don’t think the police should be at the centre of making decisions about some of these really challenging issues without wider engagement.”