Technology firms in search of brownie points with Whitehall often keep an eye on Innovate UK competitions, not so much for the cash on offer, but because they are a good guide to the issues where government is seriously stumped. Anyone with an interest in the digital investigations arena still has a few days left to register for an OCST-sponsored challenge to improve the efficiency of data recovery from digital devices seized in the course of investigations. Up to £300k is on the table, handed out in £40k chunks to promising proof-of-concept projects that use innovative tools to extract and analyse data at scale.

Any readers with a potential solution, though, would be better off going to the South West Regional High Tech Crime Unit, which has a live tender for up to £8m in outsourced digital forensics services, or to the firms which expressed interest this month in the Metropolitan Police managed service provider competition, and are now wondering how on earth an intermediary can make margin in this market.

Something needs to change. HMIC has been getting increasingly shrill about the backlog of devices awaiting forensic analysis, reporting in July that delays of up to a year were common in some forces. Pressured constabularies are trying to persuade digital forensics labs to take truckloads of seized equipment and subject it to minimal examination, all at a rock-bottom price. It’s in response to this hunger for cheaper services that the Met and Avon & Somerset have both opted for framework procurements, with genuine interest expressed from other forces.

However, demand outstrips supply. There aren’t that many more digital forensics investigators in private firms than there are working for UK police forces, and the shortage of experienced staff in both sectors is severe. It’s a highly fragmented commercial market, with only a couple of major players (CCL and LGC) and numerous one-man bands. Almost everyone involved can get enough work from private sector clients. Law firms and corporates pay at least three times what police and government agencies offer, for less harrowing work: the vast majority of police digital forensics focuses on child sexual exploitation.

Evidence has to satisfy judges, and some quality standards are essential, but the Forensic Science Regulator is there to demand and impose excellence rather than to facilitate cost savings. The ISO 17025 standard, designed for wet forensics labs which need to preserve DNA evidence, will apply fully to digital forensics by 2017. This imposes a cost on the industry which only the biggest players can afford. A return to the previous regime, which regulated individuals rather than labs, would be rather better suited to the smaller shops. These providers can build long-term relationships with local forces and with the investigating officers in lengthy investigations, allowing digital forensics to be fully exploited.

Could the Police ICT Company, or procurement collectives, step in to reduce the cost of the tools involved? In some forces, self-serve kiosks using Cellebrite for mobile discovery have gone for six months without updates; joined-up buying could help. There’s plenty of collaboration between high-tech crime units, fostered both internally and by the private sector: CCL, the largest of the private firms, shares R&D, consultancy and training with forces. But even a unified UK policing sector wouldn’t have the muscle to work the established global vendors over on price. The likes of market leader Access Data are rather more focused on the corporate and e-discovery markets than on law enforcement, and their prices reflect a heavy R&D burden, as applications need to evolve at the same pace as the frothy device market.

Meanwhile, officers who attend digital crime scenes are increasingly interested in tools which capture data from volatile memory while computers are still switched on in a raided premises. There are open source assets which can facilitate this, but it’s a new, niche market, where clear professional standards are tough to establish, and so few forces will develop the expertise to exploit the opportunity without help. For many constabularies, it takes some doing just to train responding officers in a simple tool such as Magnet Forensics Internet Evidence Finder, or in the basics of identifying kit worth seizing (the digital device backlog is said to include dusty CRT monitors and dot-matrix printers found in lofts).

In the coming climate of cuts to police and the CPS, new commercial offerings have to be very carefully thought out. But for IT firms with a long-term commitment to the UK policing market, there could be an opportunity to make a leap-of-faith investment and secure serious credibility in the digital investigation arena. While it’s a truism that all crimes are to some extent digital, the greatest mileage right now would be in volume analytics platforms to support child exploitation investigations. The market should respond with alacrity to easily operated tools and services, backed up by data handling and storage processes which were at least compliant with the ISO 17025 code of practice, and integrating well with Niche or its peers. Digital forensics application vendors without a current UK presence would make the best partners. The owner and users of a platform which achieved enough scale should be in a good position to reach accommodation with CPS, judicial and regulatory guardians of digital evidence standards. Nobody – not the labs, not Marsham Street, and certainly not police forces – has any interest in preserving the status quo.