Digital forensics

Exeter criminologist helps police meet rising demand for digital forensics services.

Working with police forces in England and Wales to better understand and improve the use of digital forensics when detecting crime.

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University of Exeter researchers are working with police forces in England and Wales to better understand and improve the use of digital forensics when detecting crime.  

In today’s digital age, law enforcement agencies have a new resource at their disposal – and, with it, a new challenge. Digital forensics – the analysis of data stored on a suspect’s electronic devices – can reveal intent to commit an offence, help establish key details about criminal activity, and is now used in more than 90% of cases.

Yet despite its advantages, forensic science in the UK is costly – a challenge which has made it difficult for law enforcement agencies to meet the rapidly rising demand for these services. While initially, forensic science was provided to police forces mostly through the government-owned Forensic Science Service, the service closed in 2012, with the UK government citing monthly losses of £2m. Since then, different arrangements have been adopted by police forces in an attempt to meet the demand for forensic services, but to varying degrees of success.  

“Each arrangement is trying to make the most of existing resources. Some forces operate in collaborations where they share all their traditional and digital forensic support. Others operate independently or collaborate only across some of these services. Because of this decentralisation, where each force decides how to use their forensic capabilities, it is important to have a better understanding of how these decisions are made and how they impact have on the delivery of justice and criminal justice outcomes. 

In the case of digital forensics, we know such resources are often insufficient to deal with an escalating demand. Mapping and examining the different arrangements that have governed the delivery of digital forensics in a turbulent period, characterised by fragmentation, a lack of foresight and systematic investment in digital forensic units affiliated to police forces, can also help us gain a much-needed insight into what works. Identifying what makes good practice and the factors that contribute to it is paramount going forward”.  

Professor Dana Wilson-Kovacs

A leading expert on operational cultures and digital forensics practices

For this reason, Dana and her team are investigating the use of digital forensics in four UK police forces and comparing their practices with those of other police forces nationally. By building a better understanding of how digital forensics services can be integrated into police operations and identifying the challenges involved in doing so, the project will support law enforcement agencies as they look to use digital forensics as effectively as possible in future. 

The project has already cast light on several key issues faced by police forces and digital forensics teams. Perhaps most urgently, the demand for digital forensics is growing at such an unprecedented rate that services are struggling to keep pace. While many of us associate DNA with crime scene investigations, today’s reality is digital. As the 2020 Digital Forensic Science Strategy developed by the National Police Chief Council attests, “digital evidence is used for more than 90% of cases”, compared to DNA, which is used in a very small fraction of cases. With each person generating over 1.7MB of data per second in 2020, the amount of digital evidence that digital forensics teams need to process in each case is only set to increase. 

Consequently, Dana and the team are looking closely at how this mountain of digital evidence is managed by law enforcement agencies, to see how forces can more effectively ration demand for forensic services and reduce the burden on staff, by introducing digital triage, new case management systems, and streamlining communication between police and forensic teams. 

The researchers are also looking at the impact that accreditation will have on forensics services who are already stretched for capacity. “With the explosion in demand for digital science services,” Dana says, “the Forensic Science Regulator for England and Wales recently introduced standards for digital forensics.” Although necessary to ensure that the quality of digital evidence, this development places a significant extra burden on police forces, who have only a very small fraction of their budget allocated to forensic support, of which digital forensics is just one facet, alongside crime scene investigation and fingerprint facilities. 

The demand on digital forensic services is further aggravated by the challenge of developing and keeping staff. Staff retention in digital forensic units tends to be low, Dana says, partly because of more competitive salaries, with “some digital practitioners moving into the private sector, which offers better pay.” Another, possibly weightier reason is the impact of the digital forensics work, as more than three quarters of the cases involve working with extremely distressing materials related to child sexual abuse. As a forensic examiner, exposure to this kind of evidence can be psychologically damaging in the long run. “The practitioners we spoke with estimated that on average, a career in policing as a digital forensic examiner is about seven years,” Dana adds, “before they leave to avoid burn out.” 

While the lure of private sector pay is difficult for forces to compete with, there are several ways in which the police can better support digital forensic examiners in future. Key here is ensuring that practitioners are fully supported in their roles, prepared for these professional risk factors and treated as a valuable and essential part of an investigation. Because forensics has traditionally been perceived as a technical service rather than an intrinsically collaborative facet of crime investigations, tensions between different professional cultures must be acknowledged and addressed. 

By building up a detailed understanding of digital forensics in policing today, Dana and her team are helping to identify key areas of improvement for the forensic work of tomorrow. While the development of digital forensics in policing is organisationally complex, the project is helping to build up both a national picture of digital forensics arrangements – such as looking at how risk assessment is handled in digital forensics in thirty-one police forces – and a knowledge base which can inform future practice.  

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