April 24, 2023

Time for action

In this opinion piece, CCL Solutions Group CEO Noel McMenamin discusses the digital forensic challenges facing the criminal justice community and advocates for stronger public sector/private collaboration as part of the solution.

There has never been so much attention and focus on the challenges facing law enforcement in relation to digital forensics.

With HMICFRS’s report published at the end of 2022, the high-profile work of the Forensic Science Regulator, the Forensic Science Regulator Act 2021 set to come into force, the establishment of Police Digital Services (PDS), and the attention brought through the Home Office-driven initiative regarding RASSO – there is now a real momentum towards a more universal application of a digital forensics approach, one of which the DF community must take full advantage.

The HMICFRS’s report shone a light on the problems for which we must collectively find answers. Comments included:

  • ‘’The service is now at a crossroads as to how it will adapt to the challenge digital forensics presents”
  • “In many forces a few specialists are trying to manage an overburdened system.”
  • “The cost of technology, developing skills and finding digital solutions can’t be for policing to address alone.”
  • “At present, 43 police forces are working in relative isolation, trying to achieve accreditation in some form of digital forensic examination. This isn’t only bureaucratic, but also nearly impossible to achieve and maintain […] collaboration with the private sector must improve to meet the challenges the future will undoubtedly bring.”

We don’t disagree. But we’re not especially encouraged by the nine recommendations that concluded the report. For a start, we need to do more to disturb the status quo and challenge some of the thinking. For example:

• Is NPCC appointing a dedicated DF Lead a new idea?

• Will PDS be different from the Forensic Capability Network?

• What will be different about the role in training played by College of Policing?

• In the decision to introduce more forensic kiosks, how much attention was paid to the FSR’s approach to accreditation and the results of tool validation exercises conducted not only five years ago but as recently as last year?

Everyone must coalesce around the ninth recommendation: more public/private sector collaboration, by far and away our best option for driving the necessary improvements. Partnerships will help break through the insularity that characterises the current DF infrastructure. Consider the situation:

• 43+ Law Enforcement Agencies working independently

• DF leads not working with CEOs of forensic services providers

• College of Policing not partnering with Digital Forensic Universities or training institutes.

Only more joined-up thinking and working can address some of the following concerns:

• The fact we still do not know the DF demand across the community, despite the Forensic Capability Network working on this over the last three years. Is this the result of a lack of cohesion across the police family despite FCN’s central governance?  

• Reducing DF demand at source with effective triage capabilities is one solution for bulging evidence shelves – the software exists to provide targeted extractions. Yet despite the results of the RRRP Tool Validation project led by FCN last year, the same tools are chosen in the repeated RRRP Tool Validation project 2023; this time led by PDS, but without revisiting the marketplace to identify tools with fewer limitations and more capabilities.

• The importance of the FSR Act 2021 to the conduct of Forensic Science Activities cannot be overstated. But whilst given a paragraph in HMICFRS’s report, it does not feature in any of the recommendations.

• The Forensic Science Regulator (FSR) post was established to create, amongst other things, Codes of Conduct alongside the ISO 17025 standard. In 2010 UK Forensic Service Providers (FSP) including Police Forces were mandated to adopt ISO 17025 Standards for Digital Forensic practices. A deadline of 2017 was set, but has still not been met, and the criminal justice system is littered with DF examinations completed by non-accredited providers.

• The ultimate rationale for making accreditation mandatory is to ensure that scientific method translates to increased levels of public confidence and trust in the evidence used within criminal justice.

• HMICFRS gives notice of draining public confidence but chooses not to include accreditation within its recommendations.  

So, how do we move forward? We are blessed with universities and academic bodies that can add significantly to the learning required. Look at the work that Cranfield University is doing in this space. The UK can also call on several Forensic Service Providers operating to the appropriate standards effectively, efficiently, and innovatively. Surely, collaboration with private industry and academia are essential? In line with recommendation nine, UK Policing in DF needs to throw the doors open and find a new operating model working in true partnership.

There are many organisations not directly within the policing family that already contribute significantly to our criminal justice system. But they do so at arm’s length. They want to do more, but they can only contribute fully if they are let in. Together, we can find solutions and we can develop an actionable plan that will have us talking in six, twelve, eighteen months’ time, of progress, not problems.

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