by Anthony Accurso
A study from the UK found that triaging digital evidence can lead to oversights and misinterpretation when the process is not designed or implemented in a way that guards against such failures.
The data, published in the journal Policing and using data collected between January 2017 and September 2019, involved 120 hours of observations about police in the handing in and processing of exhibits at four in-house digital forensics laboratories and 43 interviews with forensics specialists and police staff.
Due to the sheer amount of digital evidence, mostly mobile phones, police departments have become overwhelmed with the flood of work required to process all this evidence, resulting in backlogs.
Triaging is a process where police are trained to do initial assessments about the evidence (e.g. is the phone unlocked or does it require special tools to access it?), so that forensic man hours are spent more effectively.
Yet their systems are implemented as a response to the problem of evidence backlogs and are often pieced together by motivated police officers and forensics practitioners instead of being designed from a foresight of digital demand.
The result? Senior officers, who already have full caseloads, being put in charge of triage management and outcomes. This means oversights are practically guaranteed, and forensic staff must spend additional time sorting outstanding issues, such as whether the evidence was properly triaged in the first place.
When police become so overwhelmed that they delegate triage to forensic examiners, they risk losing skills vital to the process, which are more properly utilized in the field as part of the triage process.
These systems suffer inefficiencies due to their organic growth rather than being the result of comprehensive testing and planning, and such inefficiencies can impede access to justice. Dr. Dana Wilson-Kovacs, lead study researcher from the University of Exeter, said, “Triage can address the increasing demand for digital devices to be examined, but police forces need to pay careful consideration to how they set it up and run it, the resources they allocate to it, as well as the technological awareness of their officers.”
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