Image: King's Church International

British police ‘overwhelmed and ineffective’ at digital forensics, inspectorate report finds

Police forces across England and Wales are “unable to keep pace with technology when it comes to digital forensics,” reported His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) on Thursday.

“Egregious” delays have meant both the victims of crimes and witnesses are losing access to their mobile phones for “many months” while “overwhelmed” and “ineffective” forces have amassed “a backlog of more than 25,000 devices waiting to be examined,” the official inspectorate found. HMICFRS is a statutory body that reports directly to parliament, assessing how efficient and effective police forces are in England and Wales.

The “huge delays in examining devices” is having a “knock-on effect on both victims’ wellbeing and chances of a successful prosecution,” found the 49-page report, with “no clear and coherent national plan for improvement.”

It is the latest criticism of how law enforcement in the United Kingdom is dealing with the challenges posed by policing crimes that have a significant digital element.

Back in October, the House of Commons Justice Committee said that the U.K.’s anti-fraud efforts have failed and need “a wholesale change in philosophy and practice,” because law enforcement agencies had structurally failed to stop digital crimes and lacked the resources to address the issue. 

Earlier this year, Sky News obtained police training documents which revealed that frontline police were not being taught what evidence they can collect from technology companies.

It linked these shortcomings to failures to catch the prolific online sexual predator Abdul Elahi, a Birmingham-based offender who was only caught after being identified by the FBI following his attempt to blackmail a teenage girl in the United States, despite more than a dozen victims having previously contacted forces in the United Kingdom.

Matt Parr, the official inspector of constabulary, said that “the rapid emergence of a digital society has created a huge opportunity for police to gather new types of evidence and identify criminals,” but that his investigation did not uncover enough examples of police effectively using digital forensics.

“Many forces didn’t have a sufficient level of understanding of the work involved to recover evidence from mobile phones. Delays, lack of resources and lack of adequate training means some victims are being let down and officers are missing their chance to bring offenders to justice,” warned Parr.

There were some examples of good practice, he added, "but we found little evidence of this good practice being more widely shared and adopted by others. There is an enormous gulf in performance that cannot continue," he stated.

HMICFRS made nine recommendations, including a Home Office review into the budgets and future funding for digital forensics, alongside an increase in the number of "dedicated, competent and trained digital media investigators available to advise investigators and at crime scenes."

A spokesperson for the Home Office said: “Digital forensics are absolutely vital to putting criminals behind bars and ensuring victims receive swift justice, which are priorities for this Government. Whilst it is encouraging to see examples of good practice in forces, the overall report is disappointing and we expect police to urgently improve. 

“We have already allocated £10.4m this year alone to a new Digital Forensics Programme to support forces to reduce delays in examining digital devices and will engage further with the sector to ensure standards are raised,” they added.

But the opposition’s shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, said the report showed that digital forensics “are in a truly disgraceful state after 12 years of Conservative Government… the result is that more criminals are getting off, more victims are being let down and it is truly shameful that Ministers have let it get so bad.”

“The report makes clear the deep failings of national leadership from the Home Office as well as serious problems within police forces,” added Cooper, stressing “12 years of the Conservatives' chaotic and incompetent mismanagement of policing has left the police service unable to cope. The government needs to respond fast to sort these problems out; but only Labour can restore the national leadership necessary to reform policing and keep the public safe.”

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Alexander Martin

Alexander Martin

is the UK Editor for Recorded Future News. He was previously a technology reporter for Sky News and is also a fellow at the European Cyber Conflict Research Initiative.