The lack of digital forensics skills in police forces across the UK has been laid out in stark detail in a new report by the Government’s Forensic Science Regulator.
Digital forensics is becoming an increasingly important ability for the police to possess. It involves recovering data from devices, often computers and smartphones, from people involved in crimes.Show Full Article
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If someone is arrested on suspicion of murder, then digital forensics experts will often seek to use their smartphone as a piece of evidence.
Does its location data show that they were in the area where the murder took place? Can police break through encryption to read the alleged killer’s text messages, potentially revealing a discussion of the murder?
The skills are vital, but the report warns that police forces often don’t have the required talent to carry out such vital tasks.
Dr Gillian Tully, the Forensic Science Regulator, says “the reality is that forensic science has been operating on a knife-edge for years, with particular skills shortages in digital forensics and toxicology. It is important that our ability to use science effectively in the criminal justice system does not lag behind technologically-enabled criminals.”
“Quality is not optional,” she adds, “standards need to be implemented across the board if the sector is to learn from the past and improve for the future.”
Her report warns of “a woeful level of compliance” in the way that digital forensics are being carried out in a new “cottage industry” for investigations.
What has gone so wrong? Experts blame a number of factors which they say have led to the current situation.
Alan Woodward, a cybersecurity professor at the University of Surrey and a former GCHQ consultant, says the lack of trained digital forensics specialists can be traced back to a dwindling number of students studying technical skills in university.
“Unfortunately, it's one of those areas where as an industry we've kind of failed to attract people into it,” he says. “They're not forming an orderly queue to take all the cybersecurity modules.”
Jake Moore, a cybersecurity specialist at antivirus business ESET, says the problem may arise even sooner than university.
“There are still schools I know that do not offer IT as a GCSE or A-Level due to a ‘lack of interest’ from their students,” he says. “I think the country is slowly coming round to the idea that the information security industry is growing but it starts much earlier these days.”
However, the problem doesn’t stop with education, experts say.
Max Vetter, the chief cyber officer at online training company Immersive Lab and a former Met Police investigator, says police forces often cut training budgets which can lead to a lack of digital forensics skills.
“Unfortunately when budgets are tightened, training is usually one of the first things to go, when in reality there should be more investment made into training that can fit into officers’ existing schedules,” he says.
Both Woodward and Moore cite the pay gap between private and public sector jobs as a reason for a lack of digital forensics specialists working in police forces.
It can be a tough sell encouraging a graduate to take a job with a police force for a salary that can be tens of thousands of pounds lower than a similar role with an investment bank or start-up.
“The pay gap between law enforcement and industry naturally pulls talent away from police investigations into the private world,” Moore says.
Another problem identified by experts in the field is an increasing reliance on outsourcing digital forensics jobs to private companies, which often provides a quick fix when police forces need to analyse a computer or smartphone, but can result in a lack of in-house skills.
It’s a complex problem to solve, and the regulator’s report underlines the need for police forces to improve their digital forensics skills.
Experts agree that the need for specialists in this field is only going to become more pressing.
“The level of shortage is quite stark,” Woodward says. “It's not that we're 10 short this year, we're talking thousands and tens of thousands in the next few years.”
“The situation can only get worse because digital forensics is going to be a fact of life going forwards.”
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