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Gardaí cut backlog of child sex abuse case analysis in half, but long delays remain

At one stage, it could take five years before gardaí would get to a case because of the volume of material for analysis.

Image: Shutterstock/icsnaps

THE GARDA CYBER crime bureau has cut the backlog of material due to be assessed as part of child sex abuse investigations in half over the last three years, but delays are expected to continue as the number of cases increases.

During the sentencing hearing in 2017 for a music teacher who had hundreds of child sex abuse images on his computer, the judge was told it had taken five years before files found on the man’s computer could be properly assessed.

He was told this was because of resource issues in the computer crime investigations unit. A number of judges in cases such as these have expressed concern about the delay in analysing material. 

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Detective Superintendent Pat Ryan of the Garda National Cyber Crime Bureau said staff in the bureau have done “fantastic work” in reducing the time it takes from receiving a device to handing back evidence to investigators on the case. 

“This has resulted in a significant drop in the time taken to forensically examine items,” he said, adding that the bureau’s oldest case at one point was “five or six years”.  

“Our oldest case now would be two and a half years. There’s no law enforcement agency that doesn’t have a backlog in this area, because it takes time to do this kind of work.”

The bureau has 28 officers working in the digital forensics unit, but these gardaí are not just tasked with examining devices connected to child sex abuse material cases. This unit is responsible for examining all devices connected to any investigation, from theft and drugs offences to murder. 

A full forensic copy of each device is taken and the material goes through a triage process, whereby one team will do an initial sweep to determine whether there is relevant evidence on the device. Then, another team carries out a full forensic analysis.

In any search An Garda Síochána does, you’re talking about multiple devices for one case and that all has to be gone through to see if there is anything of evidential value. In one case we had recently we had about 30 exhibits and only two of the devices needed to be fully examined. We were able to discount the others, that saved a lot of time and effort on our behalf.

The detective superintendent said with advances in technology, even a smartphone now is as powerful as a computer, so it takes time to be examined.

“And on top of that the volume coming at us is going to increase,” he said.

“This is this one of the key drivers for our restructuring and our expansion programme of the bureau.”

Six divisional cyber crime investigations hubs are due to be established by the end of next year. These hubs will allow for analysis work at a more local level as part a tiered investigative approach to this type of crime. 

“It’s really to provide a local response which will definitely speed up the whole process and the bureau will still be here as a national oversight to provide support and guidance,” Ryan said. 

When it comes to the analysis of child sex abuse material, Ryan said the welfare of staff is a priority for garda management.

“It can obviously be very difficult, to be honest this job is not for everybody but somebody has to do it. We provide support for all of our members and we do it in a number of ways. They have access to counselling services and we try to swap it around as much as we can, so it’s not the same people doing that job every day. 

With plans to expand the bureau, I’m hoping we’ll be able to give members that break from doing child pornography cases to move them to cyber crime investigation. That’s a challenge for us at the moment based on our numbers and the workloads we have, but I can see it improving over time.

Although Ryan said the reduction in the amount of time it takes now to analyse this material has been a positive step, he knows delays will continue to be a challenge for the bureau in 2020.

“We will continue to work based on the resources we have to bring it down as much as possible,” he said.

“The time it takes and the number in the backlog has significantly reduced. Looking forward to 2020, there will be a vast increase in the number of cases we have to deal with so volume will still be a challenge.”

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