Paedophiles are escaping justice as political interference with the forensics service means some police forces are pursuing only the worst and most serious of cases. Yet according to the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) a failure to pursue low-level cases could mean that individuals committing actual physical abuse and their victims are not being identified.
Concerns were raised earlier this year by John Carr, OBE, a highly respected adviser to the UK government on internet safety policy for children at a forum organized by the Internet Watch Foundation. He confirmed this today, saying: "There are persistent rumours that because of the backlog in computer forensics, officers are being discouraged from seizing computer equipment or digital devices unless it is considered to be 'absolutely necessary'".
This is backed up by an expert source, who revealed how some police forces are reducing their reported backlog - and so improving their performance figures - by simply not seizing devices. He explained: "where, before, police might have seized six phones or three laptops, now they will only seize the one. This reduces backlog - but it means that vital evidence of crime may be missed."
According to CEOP, the impact on child protection cannot be under-stated. Research published by them this summer highlighted a significant correlation between possession of indecent images of children (non-contact offense) and contact offending (actual physical abuse). While further research is needed to establish the nature of this relationship, such findings clearly add weight to identifying those individuals who do commit non-contact offenses.
The problem is not new.
Back in 2009, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Janet Williams, then national lead on e-crime for the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) warned of a forensic backlog arising because more and more detectives and officers were seizing computers. This was particularly relevant in child abuse cases, but "unfortunately, the capability to do that locally is limited, [which] has created a backlog."
Since then, there have been two key developments. First, and controversially, back in December 2010, the Home Office announced the closure of the Forensic Science Service (FSS) a government-owned company providing forensic science services to police forces and government agencies in England, Wales and internationally. The decision was justified on the grounds that the FSS was losing around £2m a month.
However, it aroused strong criticism from leading forensic scientists both nationally and internationally, and led Joseph Bono, president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, to warn Home Secretary Theresa May against moving proven expertise into an untested new system. In January 2011, he wrote: "Any new system 'might work'; the FSS 'does work'".
Diana Johnson MP, Labour Shadow Crime and Security Minister fought long and hard against that decision: she is still unimpressed. Responding to John Carr's remarks, she said: "The Forensic Science Service had world-leading knowledge in a range of fields, including IT. Despite this the government closed the Forensic Science Service without doing anything to retain these skills. In less than a year, 60% of the forensic science market had to be taken up by the private sector and they simply don't have the level of expertise."
It has been argued that the FSS was not the first port of call for many police forces when it came to computer forensics. Failure to build a significant reputation in this area meant that many forces were already outsourcing in 2010, and the FSS itself withdrew from this area some months before its eventual closure, in March 2012. On the other hand, that decision reflects a situation in which the FSS was already slated for termination: what it could have achieved with official backing, we will never know.
Second, without a national standard, it is left to individual police forces to decide how to resource computer investigations. Some outsource to companies and organisations with expertise in this area: others train officers internally - though this approach has been criticised on the grounds that it sets police officers the impossible task of gaining significant expertise in a highly technical area
One solution to cutting through the caseload, and piloted earlier this year across five forces in the East Midlands by the National Police Improvements Agency (NPIA) is the e-forensics project. This is based on a standardised examination model under which alleged offences are referred to force Hi-Tech Crime Units and prioritised according to a range of factors, including the threat posed by the offender,the seriousness of the crime and the risk to the victim.
In August, the NPIA expressed its hope that the project, which they claimed had led to a 90% increase in computer devices examined, would be quickly rolled out across the rest of the UK, perhaps as early as September. However, following reorganisation of the NPIA and the transfer of the e-forensics project to the Home Office, this has not happened.
Nor, to date, have officials at the Home Office been able to provide any explanation of why - or when e-forensics may now go live.
In the end, the police must set priorities. Computer crime has exploded. According to the NPIA, again: "the demand on technology experts in force Hi-Tech Crime Units (HTCUs) to examine electronic devices has grown nationally by 300 per cent over the past seven years". That places a significant burden on all forces - and the strain is likely to be increased as police are asked to play a growing role in dealing with the abuse of social media and new crimes such as cyber-bullying and cyber-stalking.
Still, talking with serving officers and experts in this field, the suspicion remains that what was once a Rolls Royce service has been reduced to something much more basic and while this cannot all be laid at the feet of politicians, constant tinkering hasn't helped. The consequences go way beyond simple bean-counting. Innocent individuals see their lives put on hold for months, years at a time, pending investigation.
At the same time, real criminals - real abusers - are evading justice because the resource simply isn't there to catch them.
Follow Jane Fae on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@JaneFae