Digital Devices - 1041/21

Date Responded 21 September 2021

Provision of information held by Northumbria Police made under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (the 'Act')

As you may be aware the purpose of the Act is to allow a general right of access to information held at the time of a request, by a Public Authority (including the Police), subject to certain limitations and exemptions.

You asked:

1. Please provide the number of digital devices currently awaiting examination by, or for, the force.

For each, please provide a breakdown stating:

2. The type of device (e.g.  mobile, laptop, etc)

3. The category or level of examination it is waiting for

4. The alleged offences or category of offences it relates to

5. Whether it is due to be examined internally by the force, or by an external contractor

6. The number of days it has been awaiting examination

In Response:

There are 1,218 items (it should be noted that this refers to 200 cases – as multiple devices can be attached to a single case).

 

With regards to the remainder of your request, this information will not be disclosed and by doing so rely on the following exemption.

 

Section 31(1)(a)(b) - Law Enforcement

Harm

Modern day policing is intelligence led and law enforcement depends upon the development of intelligence and the gathering and security of evidence in order to disrupt criminal behaviour and bring offenders to justice.  As criminals adapt and exploit new technology, the police need to respond by overcoming hi-tech barriers in order to meet their responsibilities.  In this case the information relates to the extraction of data from complainants (victims) devices as well as offenders.  Revealing the tactical level at which devices are examined at would identify operational complexity in the examination of some devices and would undermine the processes involved in preventing or detecting crime and the apprehension of prosecution of offenders. 

It is widely known that the criminal fraternity analyse FOI requests to gain information on how and where they can adapt their methods to undertake illegal activity with the maximum chance of evading detection and apprehension.  Although it is not considered harmful to provide very high level data on the overall number of devices awaiting examination, providing any further breakdown of this information presents potential to undermine outstanding current intelligence and investigations and offers up information to the public at large which could be used by criminals to evade capture, ultimately disrupting the forces ability to prevent and detect crime effectively. 

 

Public Interest Test

Factors favouring Disclosure

Disclosure of the information would be in keeping with the overall need for forces to be open and transparent about their capability to undertake thorough and timely investigations in order to bring offenders to justice.  Disclosure would raise the general public’s awareness that the police are effectively and appropriately investigating all lines of enquiry and where this is less evident, promote public debate to bring relevant forces to account.

 

Factors favouring Non-Disclosure

When the current or future law enforcement role of the force may be compromised by the release of information, the effectivity of the force will be reduced.  In this case, for the reasons outlined in the evidenced harm, the effectiveness of current and future strategies when gathering evidence may be compromised.

The personal safety of individuals is of paramount importance to the Police Service and must be considered in response of every release.  A disclosure under Freedom of Information is a release to the world and, in this case, if an investigation is compromised by disclosing tactical information relating to the extraction of data from digital devices, the impact of a case failing to reach court would no doubt have an impact on any victim’s confidence in the forces ability. 

 

Balancing Test

As always the Freedom of Information Act has a presumption of disclosure, unless when balancing the competing public interest factors the prejudice to the community outweighs the benefits.  In this case, there is an argument for disclosure, inasmuch as the public have a right to know that every effort is made to gather all relevant evidence, including extracting data from digital devices, but this must be balanced against the negative impact these disclosures can make. 

Law Enforcement is reliant on community engagement, intelligence and evidence gathering and when it is appropriate, information is given to the public.  What has been established in this case is the fact that disclosure of the levels used when extracting data would have an adverse effect on the investigative process and on the public prevention or detection of crime and the apprehension or prosecution of offenders.  This places the victims of such offending at a greater risk and is not an action the Police Service would be willing to take.  These negatives outweigh any tangible community benefit and therefore the balance does not favour disclosure at this time.

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