Police outsource digital forensic work to unaccredited labs

Technology

More than a dozen police forces have outsourced digital forensic investigative work to unaccredited private laboratories in the past year, at a time when a series of rape cases have been abandoned because of problems with digital evidence.

The collapse of four trials within two months because digital forensic evidence had not been shared with defence teams has shaken confidence in the criminal justice system and triggered a review of thousands of rape cases by the Crown Prosecution Service.

Now fresh concerns have emerged about the basic quality of digital forensic evidence being used to prosecute serious crimes, including rape and child abuse. One industry figure described the digital forensics market as a “race to the bottom”, saying police contracts had been awarded to the cheapest providers irrespective of whether they complied with minimum quality standards set by the government.

The Guardian has learned that:

  • At least 15 police forces, including Greater Manchester police and the Metropolitan police, have outsourced digital forensics work – typically the analysis of mobile phones and computers – to unaccredited private companies, some of which are subject to no regulatory oversight.
  • One private company that holds a major contract covering more than a dozen forces had its accreditation revoked last year after failing its first audit, but continued to perform forensic work for the prosecution.
  • Just 15 out of 43 police forces met a government deadline in October to bring their in-house laboratories in line with minimum quality standards for analysing mobile phone, computer and CCTV data.

Nick Baker, the national police lead on digital forensics and deputy chief constable of Staffordshire police, said that the deluge of mobile phone and computer data that police are now faced with has left some forces struggling to comply with quality standards. “The speed at which that’s come upon us is immense,” he said.

Some forces outsource all their work, while others do so when required to clear backlogs. However, concerns have been raised that some private providers are falling short of official standards.

Only a handful have been audited by the accreditation body, UKAS, to ensure that phone and computer data is being extracted in its entirety, that data is stored securely and that staff vetting procedures are robust.

One of the largest private providers, a company called Sytech based in Stoke, holds a contract covering more than a dozen forces, including Greater Manchester police.

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