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Officers 'trampling' over digital evidence, forensic experts warn

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Under-trained police officers are ruining vital forensic evidence, MPs investigating digital disclosure problems have been told.

Leading digital forensic experts warned at the justice select committee inquiry into disclosure failures that lack of funding is to blame.

Dr Jan Collie, of Discovery Forensics, who specialises in defence work, told the committee: “One of the problems is the sheer amount of digital evidence the police have to look at.

“You have to consider the cloud [for digital storage], too. There’s evidence everywhere. With cuts in funding, officers don’t have the time to do all that.

“When I first started, the police had their own digital forensic units and knew what they were about. Now you are getting very sketchy evidence. People give me screenshots of pictures of a phone. I need to see [a copy of the] original, be able to repeat and verify tests.”

Police have insufficient resources, resulting in infrequent training and a lack of knowledge of digital evidence, she added.

“A lot of police stations have [mobile phone extraction kiosks] where they put a mobile phone in and press a couple of buttons, but it’s not enough analysis. A police officer who has been trained for about a day can use the equipment. He can click it in and handle the buttons, [but] often they spoil the evidence by mishandling. It’s like they have trodden on the evidence. Interpretation of data is being carried out by ordinary officers – they are not trained to do it,” explained Dr Collie.

More than 900 criminal cases were dropped last year due to a failure by police or prosecutors to disclose evidence.

Prof Peter Sommer, an expert witness in digital forensics cases, told MPs: “These kiosks are designed for preliminary inquiry, to see if it is worth pursuing. They don’t really produce reliable evidence. 

“It’s cherry picking. The posh phrase is confirmation bias. It’s got worse because the volumes you have to deal with have got much greater. These tools have deskilled [people]. Unless you know what you are looking for, the results can be very misleading.”

Forensic Science Regulator Dr Gillian Tully, told the committee: “Police digital forensic units are quite good at extracting information and making copies. They then pass copies to the general police, and investigators don’t necessarily have the tools to search the information or make good use of it.”

Many digital forensic experts are also quitting due to the sector being underfunded, with disparities over pay, according to Prof Sommer.

Digital forensic investigators within forces are paid anywhere between £25,000 to £31,000 a year, whereas those within private companies can be paid up to £60,000 on average, according to figures from Glassdoor.

He suggested disclosure failures could possibly be fixed if digital materials were to be handed over to the defence. However, Rebecca Hitchen of charity Rape Crisis, told the committee that disclosure of highly personal evidence often leads to victims refusing to testify.

“When a complainant learns of the level of intrusion into their lives, they often decide it’s not in their best interest to continue,” she said.