25 July 2017

Criminals don’t respect force borders or system silos – neither should digital evidence

We’re at a pivotal moment in how we treat digital evidence. The amount and type of evidence we have is quickly growing, but we’re only sharing a small amount across the forces, and these are largely just images. The result is silo’d information, lack of evidence, and – undoubtedly – failures of justice, because we lack a national strategy.

Despite this, there’s never been more investment in the area. To my knowledge, every force in the UK is currently creating strategies, appointing digital evidence leads. More than this, they’re creating the technologies that will enable them to cope with huge variety and size of information available to them, be it via CCTV, social media, photography, body camera and so on.

In itself this is a good thing. The volume of digital evidence is only going to increase, and media is only going to proliferate – far better to be in front of the issue before storage and IT becomes unmanageable.

What we lack is the ability to join up the evidence outside of borders or across force digital stores. The various forces and teams are largely working away individually, creating silo’d information that can be accessed only by the originating team, force or at best within a region – in some cases there are multiple silos within the force itself.

It’s a curious situation. It treats digital evidence as though it was physical: it takes something which naturally lends itself to being shared, like digital film footage, and puts it behind firewalls that ensure that only the originating force can access it, or worse one team within a force.

Sometimes police often need to travel to a certain location or certain computers to access the files, rather than via a mobile device. This is reverting to pre-Internet days, where information was stored in an old fashioned library but not put back online, and ensuring they can only be accessed in person.

Worse than that, even the existence of digital evidence is often unknown outside a particular force or department, leaving the others without key information when it comes to their own investigations.

There’s a good reason why we need to be extremely careful and firewall some evidence. Crimes involving sexual offences involving children or other vulnerable people, clearly need to be safeguarded.

But denying other forces the very knowledge that such evidence exists is unlikely to be helpful. The chances are it will lead to miscarriages of justice, even the failure to start an investigation if the evidence is deemed weak. It’s something that’s been evident from the rollout of the CONNECT Platform. Designed to bring separate forces, stakeholders, and information from disparate silos, the platform ultimately creates massive efficiency benefits by bringing everything together – including evidence.

I’m not arguing for some national digital evidence storage system – there’s nothing wrong with storing data locally. But knowledge of its existence should be accessible nationally.

Ideally, that would include being able to examine video footage stored on a distant server. Some possible enhancements to the system are possible, but require careful thinking and potentially a national debate. If we decide as a nation that it’s right for the UK, we could extend the system to include facial recognition software. This would create the basis of an effective, national, digital evidence system that would vastly enhance the ability to serve justice, while making it more difficult for terrorists and other suspects to hide.

At the moment streaming video outside of an individual force without some restrictions is probably a bridge too far. The speed and capacity of individual forces’ IT varies too widely to make this reliable. The day is coming when bandwidth won’t be an issue, however – and even before that there are still some very large wins to be had by building a national system. There are IT systems that can make that happen, and I believe ultimately the forces will end up with a national system – it’s in the interests of justice, after all.

Ian Blackhurst, Executive Director for Solutions, Northgate Public Services



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