Christa Miller: Effectively standardizing digital forensics practices and procedures across an entire country requires collective investment and collaboration as lab personnel support and learn from one another. Coordinating this effort in the United Kingdom is the Forensic Capability Network or FCN, which operates under the ambit of the National Police Chiefs’ Council Transforming Forensics program.
With the Forensic Focus Podcast to talk about it all is Paul Gibson, Regional Deputy Chief Constable for the East Midlands Special Operations Unit and National Police Chief Council Lead for the Forensic Marketplace and Digital Forensics. I’m your podcast host Christa Miller and welcome, DCC Gibson.
Paul Gibson: Thank you. Thank you for having me, Christa. I’m looking forward to the conversation.
Christa: Likewise. So as we at Forensic Focus over the last year or so, we’ve been delving into standardization. And one thing that stands out is all of the moving parts across accreditation, best practices, various programs and projects. More than a year after the NPCC Digital Forensic Science Strategy was published, how and where does it all fit together and how is the strategy guiding the process?
Paul: Okay. A really, really good opening question and probably helpful for me to just set some context.
Paul: So I’ve recently taken over as the National Police Chiefs’ Council Digital Portfolio lead. And I want to give that work some real impetus here in England and Wales. And certainly something that is a priority for our government at present is reducing violence against women and girls. And this is very much a priority across policing and a priority for me.
That’s why we’re delivering on something called the Rape Review Response Project. We call it RASSO, so Rape and Serious Sexual Offences. And from my perspective, it’s important to improve the experience, particularly for the victim, for the witnesses, and to make sure that we can maximize the prosecution of suspects for this type of horrific offending that our populations endure.
And from the question of the National Digital Forensic Science Strategy. I’ll call it the DFSS as we go. This was published as you’ll know, back in July 2020. And this is a comprehensive piece of work that I’m using really as the blueprint for my work in this portfolio. So it sets out in detail the many challenges we face in digital forensics and the drivers for real systemic change that is needed.
And at its core is the parlance is often used, but that “whole system” approach, and this is required because there are so many moving parts, so many complex interdependencies, and the DFSS is the way that we can actually bring these strands together. So, what the DFSS does, it breaks down into six main areas that cover research and innovation, working better with industry and other stakeholders, and this improves sight across the work that’s already underway and also what’s coming over the horizon in terms of that kind of horizon scan about what’s new.
So I guess the best way I can summarize it is that the strategy is the theory, we’re now developing the practice. And I brought stakeholders together from police, law enforcement, and criminal justice agencies, just a few weeks ago to run a workshop to basically go through the six strands of the strategy, right through from operations support, right through to market management. And from there, we are working together to put together a three-year implementation plan.
So that’s something that we’re working hard on at the moment, but from my perspective, it’s really important that it’s led by the community because actually we’re delivering on behalf of policing to make sure we give the best possible service we can to the victims of crime in England and Wales.
Christa: Can you give some examples of how that’s working in practice?
Paul: Yeah, so I think a good example would be the RASSO Project, so the Rape and Serious Sexual Offending. At present, what we’ve done from our Transforming Forensics Program is we’ve utilized £5 million of funding in order to support much better digital forensic science services.
So what does that look like in reality? Well, 24 or more forces, because we work in geographical counties within England and Wales, so there are 43 forces, and they’ve all made bids into our program to say, you know, what they required. And what’s been on offer is digital forensic vans. So these are basically mobile digital forensics units, which have the benefit of being able to triage exhibits at the scene in order to reduce the number of exhibits that are going to come for more detailed examination.
We’re also investing in ruggedized laptops. So, kind of, police-proof laptops that can go out into the field and again, do very similar, you know, in-field work where again, we can triage and be really, really directed as to what we seize and therefore what we take back to our digital forensic units.
And also we are further investing in kiosks. So kiosks where we can enhance the download from mobile telephones to speed up the process so that essentially, you know, justice can be served quicker, victims can be supported and we seek an outcome where, you know, people are held to account for the crimes that they’ve been involved with.
And, you know, what’s really important is just to make sure that the victims of those horrendous crimes are supported as best as they can be. And digital forensics has an important part to play in that.
Christa: I think it was the most recent Forensic Science Regulator’s report that reflected improvements in all of those areas, or digital forensics overall with a fair way still to go. I wanted to find out more about the Forensic Capability Network and Transforming Forensics. I know that the two are closely related. How did all of that come about and what was the reasoning behind them?
Paul: Okay, so the Transforming Forensics Program is a program to design and deliver capabilities. It’s sort of the project arm, the delivery arm of our kind of transforming forensics program. So, the Forensic Capability Network is the network that supports forces along their journey across the delivery of many of the DFSS’ priorities. So, whereas the Transforming Forensic Program is the project element, the Forensic Capability Network is the ‘business as usual’ element that’s supporting forces in the delivery of digital forensics across the country.
Transforming Forensics was set up to deal with some of the intractable problems that forensics in policing faces. These include all the issues that are set out in the Digital Forensic Science Strategy. But for me, I guess they can be best summed up into three main areas: one being the exponential increase in the volume of data and devices for examination, the kind of Moore’s Law effect; the complex challenge that each digital examination presents, because that becomes more and more challenging; and of course, the absolute imperative to build and maintain public trust. That’s really, really important. So they would be the three main issues.
And it was really important also just to stress that the forces themselves, the forensic community, the forensic vendors, and the forensic providers have helped to design the Forensic Capability Network and the areas that Transforming Forensics needs to rely upon. So it’s very much, we’re here to deliver on behalf of policing in terms of what is their biggest priority and their biggest need.
And in terms of our project, we’ve been very heavily involved in gathering baseline data from digital forensics units to understand gaps. We’ve been very busy with data protection requirements. We’ve been putting together expert networks in order to advise both the FCN and TF in terms of digital forensic requirements.
And, you know, we’ll talk a little bit about CSE Automate perhaps, where we’ve been looking at artificial intelligence and robotic automation to deal with CSEA, so Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse Images, which again, takes up so much of our digital forensic units time. And what we’re trying to do is really try and streamline that so that we can again achieve our justice outcomes quicker.
Christa: I do want to talk about CSE Automate. Before we get to that, I want to focus in on, there are a couple of specific projects that I think that it’s coming out of, specifically the FCN Xchange and ultimately the Forensic Information System. How are they supporting the DFSS moving forward?
Paul: Okay, that’s a great question. For me, it’s more that CSE Automate is the first stage in trying to achieve the vision for the strategy rather than Xchange being the driver. Xchange is the platform or the technology on which the tools can sit. So again, it’s a networked, national infrastructure.
The project is also not just about technology, it’s about developing standardized processes and support to make it easier for the forces across our country to adopt the CSE Automate project and service. We chose to focus on CSE as I just alluded to, as it takes up around about 60% of our digital forensic unit capacity nationally. I don’t know if that’s the same in the US, and so this helps to reduce the burden here within our digital forensics units, and that then gives us greater capacity to focus our digital forensic experts on other things.
So this is about automation of processes, machine learning, artificial intelligence, rather than CSE on its own. And what we’re aiming to do is make it crime-type agnostic. So this could be applied to other crime types as well. But I think in terms of, you know, CSE, Child Sexual Exploitation, again, crimes committed against the most vulnerable people within our communities, and to utilize cutting edge technology to enhance how we investigate that type of criminality. Also much better in terms of welfare for police officers and those individuals that normally view these types of horrendous images. You know, I think it’s entirely the right thing to deliver on behalf of policing. And of course then frees up our experts to then work on other types of digital forensic problems.
Christa: Yeah. I think when you look at the number of cyber tips that are generated by the Cyber Tip Line at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, that you just get a sense of how staggering the numbers really are, and hopefully get to a point where you can at least address more of those, if not all of them, which would be ideal.
So, you mentioned that CSE Automate being the first stage towards the vision for the FCN Xchange. How do you anticipate that it will adapt beyond just CSEA?
Paul: Okay. Well, I mean, our CSE Automate placements, so we have three placements at the moment utilizing three different technologies. And they really started to bear fruit. I mentioned, you know, some of these placements involve robotic automation and we’re also developing standardized workflows and tools to test across all three different types of technologies.
You know, we’re really excited about one of our placements with Greater Manchester Police. We’re excited about all of them, but this is where the automated workflow about how we analyze these images has gone through two rounds of vigorous testing and the team has incorporated everything they’ve learned from that into then enhancing the prototype into something that is really starting to now be tested utilizing live data. So this is live operational data alongside existing processes, so we can make sure we can validate and speak to the quality element of our work to ensure that our processes are accredited and valid in terms of what they produce.
So I guess that’s the CSEA part of the process, but we know that this can be applied to other crime types. You know, it’s like building a road; you make it for any sort of vehicle to drive on. And, you know, just from the top of my head, there’s some exciting work, certainly in my area around mobile phone extraction on an industrial basis.
And also working with both CCTV and surveillance imagery, so we can start to apply artificial and machine learning over that to stop officers and staff having to sit for hours and hours to view particular things. We can actually now start to make some of this, which obviously then frees up time to be able to focus on other issues.
Christa: Yeah, it does. I just was curious, are there other, or if you can talk about other crime types and evidence types beyond CSE that are sort of, I guess, next to be prioritized within that?
Paul: Yeah, well, at present our focus is, in terms of the TF Program, is on the RASSO sexual offenses work and CSE Automate. What I’m really keen on as the Digital Forensics lead is then for our community to take it to the next steps of what our delivery plan should look like. And within that what I want to be able to do is fix the intractable issues that our frontline policing community are facing and let them advise how we best develop the next set of capabilities.
So there are all sorts of theoretical opportunities around homicide to, you know, CCTV as I’ve mentioned, and everything in between. But what I want to make sure is that both the products of the Forensic Capability Network and the Transforming Forensics Program are very much led by the community. So we are solving the issues that they really identify as a priority.
Christa: Okay. Okay. I wanted to get into, I mean, given that sort of network of agencies that are expected to bring their experience and perspective to bear on this. So following years of austerity and now Brexit, where have budget and resource issues impacted the law enforcement agencies and digital forensics units, and as a result, their ability to implement these changes, especially as technology itself continues to evolve?
Paul: Yeah, and I think that’s a really, really important question. You know, we know that technology in terms of the pace of its development is just exploding. And of course, within law enforcement there is a lack of capacity and resources, particularly following the pandemic, which has had a huge impact upon our public resources.
So, it is a challenge to deliver transformation in that environment, and at the same time, being able to still deliver operational digital forensic requirements, which often, you know, is a matter of life and death in terms of some of the inquiries and investigations we have to make. But we are focusing on achieving what rapid benefits we can, while laying the groundwork for bigger and longer-term systemic change.
CSE Automate, we’ve touched upon, is a direct response to the challenge. To free up the resources that the place is most burdened upon digital forensics units, as well as to, and it really is important to stress the point of trying to maximize the welfare of our staff who have to deal with these, you know, horrendous crime types.
And, you know, is a challenge within the UK in terms of how the policing system is structured. Because we have, you know, 43 forces in England and Wales that all have autonomy to run their forces in the way that they would wish. And we are certainly very mindful of that, but what we are trying to do is to knit together the best solutions that give the most benefit for everybody.
And I think the challenge for me is that when you think long-term, and the speed in which criminality is advancing technology and the use of digital media, we have to keep pace. There is the long-term view that, you know, wouldn’t it be great to be able to deliver national platforms, national automation? And I don’t decry that, you know, they are great ambitious to have, but what we do need to do is delivery within the funding envelope that’s available.
So, for me, it’s around building blocks and deliver tangible results that support chief constables in their forces, but also make sure that those building blocks over time do form the foundation of a building, if you want to use that analogy, that delivers in the long term. And that’s what we’re doing with our Digital Forensic Science Strategy and our delivery plan. A challenge, but certainly a challenge that I’m very much excited about.
Christa: Yeah, it sounds like a huge opportunity. Sort of to that end, the DFSS referred to digital forensic science as a “golden thread” running through the investigative process, tying together the entire process from crime scene to courtroom. Are you receiving feedback from the Crown Prosecution Service as to how well all of these efforts together are resolving confidence issues with the digital forensic services?
Paul: We are. We’re consulting widely without everyone who has a part to play. That’s from the Crown Prosecution Service and the government departments to forensic service providers and vendors, as well. The DFSS will never become a reality without collective buy-in. You know, that is something that is absolutely, you know, paramount in terms of working collegiately together.
And, for example, the Crown Prosecution Service has been closely consulting with our operational guidance we’ve developed for dealing with legacy data in digital forensics and also on our CSE Automate flagship project. And as I mentioned earlier, I brought all stakeholders together within the past few weeks to really make the DFSS vision a reality in terms of a tangible plan. And that involved, sort of, you know, 60 to 80 people from all aspects of law enforcement, criminal justice, and policing to work through the different areas of the strategies and to determine what’s the most important.
And what I’m then in the process of doing is now setting up individual leads that come from the forensic community that will then run each and every part of the strands of the strategy. So, operational support, developing the workforce, you know, stimulating the financial and the commercial market and so on and so forth. So we’ve very much got leadership from within forensics that are then developing services and products and solutions that they know that will work and will add real value.
Christa: Okay. I guess the reason I focus specifically on the CPS is that knowing how the legal landscape has been slower to evolve than the technology, sometimes to investigators’ detriment, how are the FCN and the DFSS and the other pieces addressing those kinds of gaps, especially as data is increasingly stored across borders, often encrypted, fragmented in terms of the insights they provide into people’s lives?
Paul: Yeah, the Home Office in the UK leads on developing legislation and guidance on interpreting legislation here, and we are working as you would expect very closely with them to make changes in the future. We shared data with them as part of our Ground Truth data projects that they fully understand from data the forces themselves have provided exactly what the challenges are and where the gaps are. Research and innovation is a future focus and a key strand for the strategy. And this will give us a better idea of what’s coming down the line.
So, being able to anticipate future threats, future technological enablement, and understand how we can best respond to that. And I think, you know, in terms of working together, I would reiterate the earlier point. It is so important that we work together as a whole system to develop a future strategy that can deliver in the longer term. And certainly my thinking is very much in the longer term, but as I said, we need to build building blocks to make sure that we take incremental steps towards that. Because again, there’s no way we can deliver the perfect solution within year one. It’s going to be a question of step by step, working towards the vision and to be guided by the blueprint of the strategy.
Christa: I look forward to following along as you’re going through this, it sounds like, again, a huge opportunity, a huge challenge, but just a very interesting overall.
Paul: Well, thank you very much for talking to us today. It’s been a real delight to hopefully give some information that just gives a little bit of an insight into what we’re doing, but of course, more than happy to reach out and connect in the future to discuss any future kind of arrangements or any questions that you have. But thank you for having me.
Christa: Absolutely. DCC Gibson, thank you for joining us again. Thanks also to our listeners. You’ll be able to find this recording and transcription along with more articles, information and forums at www.forensicfocus.com. If there are any topics you’d like us to cover, or if you’d like to suggest someone for us to interview, please let us know. Stay safe.