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Digital forensics inspection 'paints a sorry picture' for policing

HMICFRS identified multiple issues, including a significant backlog of devices awaiting examination, a lack of consideration for victims' needs, and an inconsistency in approach between forces.

Policing has been urged to get a grip on its use of digital forensics, after an inspection warned that issues prevalent across forces are jeopardising investigations and failing victims.

After assessing how effectively the service provides digital forensics to secure evidence and protect victims, HMICFRS made nine recommendations across five areas.

The inspectorate reviewed the 43 force management statements and visited eight police forces and four regional organised crime units (ROCUs) across England and Wales.

Serving as a backdrop to the current landscape is the reality that technology is developing at such a pace that forces are struggling to cope with the demand for digital forensic examinations.

HM Inspector of Constabulary Matt Parr said: "In our inspection, we didn’t see enough examples of policing making effective and efficient use of digital forensics.

“The demand in digital crime will only continue to grow, so police leaders need to work with the Home Office and Crown Prosecution Service to tackle this immediately."

The inspection revealed that, at the time undertaken, there were over 25,000 devices awaiting this type of examination.

This backlog creates delays which are seen by HMICFRS as a 'contributory factor to victims losing faith in the criminal justice system'.

Moreover, disparities in terms of digital forensics management across forces has created a postcode lottery.

HMICFRS found deficiencies in forces’ understanding of the current demand and the level that will exist in the future, admitting that it has ‘little confidence’ that policing grasps how much it will rely on digital forensic examinations moving forward.

A lack of governance for the provision of digital forensic services across England and Wales means there is no service-wide response to the issue of demand, which includes addressing the examinations backlog.

The scale of digital forensics has led the inspectorate to conclude that a dedicated NPCC lead is required; currently, the lead manages three forensic-related portfolios.

To reflect this, the NPCC has been asked to appoint a lead for digital forensics by next April who will be expected to develop a governance framework to better understand demand by July.

Each force in England and Wales has been asked to create a similar framework to aid their understanding of local demand, with HMICFRS having found backlogs of over a year in some forces.

A significant contributor to this was the fact that there was ‘no single consistent organisational structure’ across the forces visited by the inspectorate; some digital forensic units (DFUs) were part of investigations departments, others fell under a combined forensics unit.

The quality of personnel within DFUs wasn’t an issue, but the quantity was, a problem that was also seen with digital media investigators (DMIs).

A lack of DMIs presented issues at crime scenes, at which investigators are normally supported by crime scene managers (CSMs), whose expertise lays in preserving non-digital evidence.

The inspectorate recommended the NPCC and College of Policing work to increase the number of DMIs by April 2024.

HMICFRS acknowledged that significant investment has been made in DFUs, but question marks remain over how well this is used, alongside issues relating to parity of funding across forces.

The inspectorate identified areas of good practice, such as a pilot in which Greater Manchester Police helped develop an automated process for examining devices linked to child sexual exploitation. This resulted in the force halving the time it needed to examine such devices.

Three of the recommendations centred around future plans which will help policing keep pace with advances in technology.

One of the issues identified was storage of evidence, with HMICFRS concluding that policing must move to a cloud-based system because ‘the old ways of storing evidence don’t work in this digital age’.

While forces such as the City of London Police, Essex Police and Kent Police are already planning this move, the inspectorate found others to be reluctant. The new NPCC lead for digital forensics has been asked to provide guidance on the use of cloud-based storage by June 2023.

Throughout the inspection HMICFRS emphasised that a successful blueprint for success already exists in the form of how traditional forensics has evolved.

To this end, chief constables have been tasked with integrating digital forensic services with their existing forensic structure by November 2024.

Emphasising that this integration is key to making improvements, HMICFRS acknowledged that this process 'won’t be easy and will inevitably take some time'. 

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