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Unknown hero: Mental Health in Digital Forensics

Many experts in the area of digital forensics from all around the world work to improve the level of public security. Thanks to their work, significant amounts of evidence used during trials is gathered. Thus, why is the occupation often underestimated, and what are the consequences of the lack of appreciation? The answers can be found in the article published by Stephen Fisher Davies.

Impostor syndrome is a common topic on LinkedIn and other professional online career communities, but it seems especially poignant among digital forensics analysts, who frequently work 9-5 Monday to Friday viewing things that no human eye should ever have to witness for the vast majority of the working life, all the whilst balancing a normal life at home – and frequently with little feedback as to whether it’s making a difference.

More than a decade of experience working in digital forensics has me still, from time to time, wondering what my life could have been if I’d chosen another career or pursuit. Take, for instance, a recent family trip to the West coast of Wales. There, my family, with all the other families on the beach for the first post lockdown weekend were enjoying our day out, when from out of no-where, a cacophony of beeps sounded. 6+ men sprang to action, running out  from family picnics, surrounding bars and restaurants, and seemingly from no-where. They started running full pelt across the beach.

These men were running to the nearby lifeboat station and less than a few minutes later were bundling into the sea in a life raft to save someone potentially having the worst day of their life. I felt so proud for them and got that same chill I get every time I see a sea of cars parting for an ambulance, or a police car hurtling down the motorway to respond to an incident. I can’t help a lustful “I wish I could help someone like that” or “I wish my work mattered”. 

I am now too old, wide around the middle and financially committed to just quit it all and become a police officer as my heart desires, but I’ve come to the realisation that not being in the limelight doesn’t mean you aren’t making a real difference with your work.

Working tirelessly in the background up and down the UK and our surrounding islands are dedicated specialist teams of passionate individuals who work without accolade within the police hi tech crime units, counter terror units, regional crime teams and private companies assisting with the UKs forensic needs. 

These experts work to satisfy the UK insatiable (yet necessary) need and demand for digital forensic services. Casework that you pick up in the morning (even in a private business to many peoples surprise) can involve anything from trying to get to the bottom of a rape, murder, fraud, online dark web drug dealing, prostitution rings, human trafficking, sudden and suspicious deaths and mainly, mostly, child abuse investigations.

This is mentally very taxing, but when we get it right, extremely rewarding. We work behind the curtain on the rights and the wrongs with cases, often with very little to no feedback of how the findings helped, where the cases go or what difference any of our work makes, all the while trying to maintain our own mental wellbeing knowing deep down “I’m sure I’m doing a good job”.

Though at times wholly thankless, I do this for the children in front of the camera, for the now silent victims of an abusive spouse who stole their life from them, for the countless would-have-been victims who never had to encounter a predator stopped before their crimes could escalate. Being able to see through someone’s lies with my professional opinion means they are sentenced and monitored by the powers that be to see they do not escalate their offending. 

It is always also very satisfying to see people exonerated and charges dropped in cases where someone clearly has a vendetta against them, or in other cases, for the small handful of men I successfully proved HAD in fact accidentally downloaded the material which was found on their equipment. This is very satisfying to know what a difference you can make being the witness of truth when everyone else has been chasing them with pitchforks on their blind witch hunt.

After a particular low point in my career a few years ago, I took time during my lunch breaks to actively pursue what happened in all the cases I could get feedback for. In those 12 months I realised my reports had contributed to over 200 years of custodial sentences! In that time, I had also provided 20+ intelligence referrals for offenders who might have already been, or gone on to commit, hands on offences with children. I also had 2 children rescued overseas from their abusive fathers and whatever future horrors were in store for them.

For whoever needs to read this, it has taken me a long time to realise that being good at your job and pursuing excellence in the work you do matters. You don’t have to be a firefighter physically pulling children out of a burning building to have a real impact on real victims’ lives. Even ensuring that victims can begin the healing process really matters. It has a real impact and makes a big difference in the work. Keep being excellent, keep hammering the nail and you will never appreciate what a difference your work makes sitting behind a desk being someone else’s hero.

So please remember that if you are an officer in charge of a case where our report caused the suspect to confess everything in an interview or working in the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and our further reply to the suspect’s defence ‘cracks the case’, a small 30 seconds taken to give some feedback to the experts who worked on your case will make an untold difference, too, helping to keep us driven to do our job well and willing to go that extra mile on all the jobs we do. We all need feedback sometimes, as you are always sure to remind me if we get it even slightly wrong. Without this feedback, blood, sweat and tears can often just feel like letters down the well.

I should also take this time to say thank you to everyone who has given me feedback over the years. Your kind words of encouragement have spurred me on to become the examiner I am and pass on as much knowledge as I can. This good will and training is now seeded in the mind of the people I have been fortunate enough to work with and train who work in businesses, digital forensic units and 3 letter agencies up and down the UK and overseas!

The article was initially published on LinkedIn, and the author has agreed to publish it on PPHS’s website and social media accounts.

Stephen Fisher Davies works as a Senior Digital Forensic Consultant at SYTECH – Digital Forensics (Newport Lab Manager).