Police Scotland has a backlog of 2,553 electronic items awaiting digital forensic analysis, The Ferret can reveal.
A reply by the force to a freedom of information request reveals that items awaiting examination in the last six months of 2019 included 1,483 phones, 229 laptops, 180 tablets and 229 hard drives.
The force is under pressure from charities representing victims of crime to tackle the backlog as people are left paying bills for phones they are unable to use for months on end.
Police Scotland hopes that the current roll out of cyber kiosks will help to cut the time victims of crimes are without their devices. But privacy campaigners say the rules that govern how kiosks are used need to be tightened up.
Cyber kiosks allow officers to bypass encryption and read personal data from digital devices, including mobile phones or laptops, without using a password. They plug into phones or tablets so trained operators can look for information relevant to an investigation.
Police Scotland bought 41 cyber kiosks and had intended to use them from autumn 2018 but their introduction was postponed amid concerns over the legal basis for their use.
Matthew Rice, Scotland director for Open Rights Group, said the whole system of seizing and examining digital devices in Scotland “needs proper legal reform to maintain respect for individual’s right to privacy”.
He added: “These searches are deeply intrusive and our legal system in Scotland is not fit to respond to that level of intrusion. Open Rights Group called on Police Scotland to prevent rolling out until the Scottish Government reformed the law to provide an overarching framework for the seizure of electronic devices in Scotland in line with human rights standards.
“That recommendation has not been heeded by the government and, as a result, we will shortly have intrusive technology available for use by police in Scotland under laws that don’t meet fundamental standards of accessibility and foreseeability for the individual.”
Rice continued: “For the sake of everyone involved in the justice system, suspects, witnesses and victims, we need to update our laws. Without this, in the pursuit of meeting the challenge of modern policing, these kiosks may create more problems than they solve.”
Police Scotland digital forensic backlog
|CD / DVD disc||30|
|TV / TV devices||7|
– 10/12/2019. Source: Police Scotland / Freedom of Information.
Scottish Greens justice spokesperson, John Finnie MSP, said his party had some concerns over cyber kiosks, adding that Police Scotland should not have pressed on with a trial of the devices without impact assessments on human rights and data usage.
He added: “That’s why MSPs paused the roll-out and put this scheme under fierce scrutiny to balance privacy and safety. Used properly, this technology can reduce the backlog, and it’s clear that a clear legal framework and safeguards can also inform the development and much-needed debate of future technologies such as live facial recognition.”
Police Scotland is pushing ahead with this new technology despite knowing the concerns that exist over whether or not there is sufficient legal basis for its use. Liam McArthur. Scottish Lib Dems
Liam McArthur MSP, justice spokesperson for the Scottish Liberal Democrats, said: “Police Scotland is pushing ahead with this new technology despite knowing the concerns that exist over whether or not there is sufficient legal basis for its use.
“It seems inevitable that the use of cyber kiosks will be challenged and if so it will not reflect well on Police Scotland management if they are found to have pushed into uncharted territory without proper legal safeguards being in place.”
Sandy Brindley, of Rape Crisis Scotland, said some rape victims had waited for years to have phones returned by police after they were held during investigations.
She added that progress had been made recently though and that Rape Crisis Scotland was liaising with Police Scotland.
“To be left without a device that most of us rely so heavily on for long periods with no indication of when it may be returned is just not good enough. It also compounds the lack of control that many survivors feel following trauma,” Brindley continued.
“It is clear though more broadly that there are bigger questions that still require answers in terms of process, accountability and transparency when it comes to handling digital devices.”
Rape victims billed hundreds of pounds for mobile phones seized by police
Deputy chief constable, Malcolm Graham, said the new statistics revealing the Police Scotland backlog “underline exactly why we have introduced cyber kiosks”.
He added: “By quickly identifying devices which do and do not contain evidence, we can minimise the intrusion on people’s lives and provide a better service to the public.
“We are committed to providing the best possible service to victims and witnesses of crime. This means we must keep pace with society. People of all ages now lead a significant part of their lives online and this is reflected in how we investigate crime and the evidence we present to courts.
“Many online offences disproportionately affect the most vulnerable people in our society, such as children at risk of sexual abuse, and our priority is to protect those people.
“Increases in the involvement of digital devices in investigations and the ever-expanding capabilities of these devices mean that demand on digital forensic examinations is higher than ever. Current limitations however, mean the devices of victims, witnesses and suspects can be taken for months at a time, even if it later transpired that there is no worthwhile evidence on them.”
Police Scotland only disclosed statistics on their digital forensic backlog after The Ferret appealed to the Scottish Information Commissioner.
Photo thanks to iStock/Motortion. The story was published in tandem with the Sunday National.