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CPS’s Missing Sex Abuse DVDs Indicate a Deeper Digitalisation Malaise

National Audit Office warns of "significant risks" as digitalisation push runs behind schedule and over budget

By Umar Hassan

This week’s revelation that the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) had been fined £325,000 for losing unencrypted DVDs containing sex abuse interviews was met with incredulity by the cybersecurity industry.

The CPS had received a package of 15 unencrypted DVDs from Surrey Police on November 18 2016 with child sex abuse victims. It had sent them by tracked delivery to another CPS office, where they were left in reception.

It took a month for their disappearance to be discovered.

“Take a Hike”

As WinMagic’s Luke Brown put it to Computer Business Review: “It defies belief that organisations like the CPS are still seemingly playing fast and loose with personal and sensitive information.”

He added: “Preventing these incidents is simple: encrypt the data so no matter where it is – on a DVD, data centre or in the cloud – only those who are meant to see the data, see the data. Everyone else can take a hike.”

But the fine from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) was indicative of a deeper rooted problem as the country’s criminal justice system struggles to digitalise, a recent report from the National Audit Office (NAO) reveals.

Criminal justice digitalisationAudit Reveals Deeper Malaise

The May 8 report from the NAO emphasises just how severe challenges are, as the HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) facing what the NAO describes as a “daunting” challenge to deliver technological and cultural change to modernise.

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By March 2023, HMCTS expects to employ 5,000 fewer full-time equivalent staff, reduce the number of cases held in physical courtrooms by 2.4 million cases per year and reduce annual spending by £265 million through digitalisation.

A major problem:  HMCTS expects its funding gap could be as much £177 million as it seeks to enact the changes in the face of a tightening budget.

The shift hasn’t been welcomed by all. Mark Serwotka, General Secretary at the Public and Commercial Services Union described the changes as “reckless”.

Commenting on the report said: “Our court system is in meltdown. It is kept from sinking by the hard work of the dedicated staff who keep it afloat in the face of budget cuts which have exceeded any other department. Any further cuts will make their job impossible and those seeking to access justice will suffer as a consequence.”

He added: “The new technology that’s been introduced so far is far from reliable. These changes aren’t about improving access to justice; they’re about delivering a more detached, virtual service and cutting costs.”

“Significant Risks Remain”

Speaking on May 9, Sir Amyas Morse, the head of the NAO, said: “Modernising the justice system is an ambitious challenge. HMCTS has improved its approach, but overall it is behind where it expected to be and significant risks remain.”

He added: “Not only could these delay improvements being delivered on time, the tight timetable could also force HMCTS to make changes before fully understanding the consequences for the justice system. HMCTS must continue to adapt its approach if it hopes to successfully deliver a modern justice system that works better for everyone and achieve necessary savings for the taxpayer.”

“Common Platform” Late and Over Budget

The “Common Platform” of shared processes and a digital criminal justice case management system to share information between HMCTS, the Crown Prosecution Service and the police meanwhile was originally due to complete in July 2018, but suffered from significant delays in development and delivery.

The NAO describes this as being “mainly due to challenges associated with managing dependencies across three organisations (the police, CPS and HMCTS), the complexity of the technology and creating a new in-house team to develop the software.” Implementation has been pushed back another two years.

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