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Police warn of IT expertise shortfall

Cases are collapsing because of a lack of expert witnesses. But some experts say the police also lack the skills needed to fight cybercriminals

Police and experts warned on Monday that prosecutions are collapsing or being conducted unfairly because of a shortage of expert witnesses with IT skills.

According to Tony Neate, industry liaison officer for the National Hi-Tech Crime Unit (NHTCU), some cases are collapsing because the courts cannot find enough people with expertise in issues such as forensic computing.

The British Computing Society (BCS) agreed that there is a lack of independent expert witnesses, and that this was detrimental to the criminal justice system.

"You have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that someone is guilty, but without evidence, you can't prosecute. There are not enough independent expert witnesses. I know experts who have to turn away work because there are not enough qualified people," said Professor Brian Collins, vice-president of the BCS.

According to the Police Information Technology Organisation (PITO), the problem is that potential witnesses haven't got a solid enough knowledge of the law, even if they have the necessary IT expertise.

"You have to be able to prosecute and defend competently. Experts may have the technical skills, but often they don't understand evidence production and display, and how to present that in court," Mick Humphrey, Police National Network information assurance liaison officer for PITO, told ZDNet UK.

This can have wide-ranging consequences in court.

"If prosecution witnesses don't have that expertise, the case can collapse and there's no trial. If defence witnesses don't understand the background, there's the danger of having an unfair trial," said Humphrey.

"There have been cases where a person is accused of having something on their computer, and the expert has established a computer has been used to download inappropriate content, but they haven't looked at who else has shared the PC. This is particularly relevant in offices where people hotdesk. It's not just about the IT, it's about identity authentication in a forensically sound manner," Humphrey added.

The BCS also believes that there is a worrying lack of IT expertise in the Serious and Organised Crime Agency, the police organisation that will incorporate the NHTCU in April.

"In terms of the quality of investigations, there is a shortage of SOCA IT experts," said Collins.

Neate admitted that there is a shortage of IT expertise in the police at a local level, but denied a lack of knowledge in national police organisations.

"The NHTCU doesn't have a problem with expertise, but the local level needs to be supported. At the national level there's no problem," Neate insisted.

Neate also welcomed the launch of the Institute of Information Security Professionals (IISP) on Tuesday, which he said would give the police more interaction with IT forensics experts.

"We need an Institute to provide law enforcement with the expertise to help with investigations. It's difficult to find the best experts to come in. The Institute will give more scope, and a link to security experts directly," said Neate. "Today we've knocked one of the nails in the coffin of high-tech criminality," he added.