When Is An Expert Not An Expert?

I have worked exclusively as a cell site engineer and expert witness for almost 14 years. During this time, I have worked for many Police Forces and also many defence Solicitors and have completed in excess of 700 cell site reports. I have given evidence in many of the principal UK courts on numerous occasions. It is my background and qualifications in electronic engineering, along with working in the radio communications and mobile network engineering industries giving a combined experience of over 30 years, that provides ‘expert’ credentials. In response to recent publications and scrutiny regarding expert witness credentials, and from an increasing level of experiences in court situations, I would like to provide the following observations;
During the emerging years of cell site analysis, (the late 90’s and early 2000’s) there were just a few specialist companies offering the service. During my early years in this career, from 2005, I encountered several cell site experts from these companies in court on a regular basis. As it was a specialist role, there were not many of us and we frequently met with each other and were often invited into a conference room to discuss matters and provide areas of agreement. Each of the cell site experts I encountered were qualified engineers, with a background in radio communications and mobile telecommunications, mostly with 20-30 years’ experience in the industry.

Cell site evidence has progressed from the preserve of only the most serious crimes to now being used in the majority of criminal investigations to a more or lesser extent, including vehicle theft, street robberies, stalking and affray. As such, there has been a dramatic increase in cell site practitioners and this is one of the areas being commented upon in this article.
Due to the increase in volume of this evidence, we have seen an explosion of companies all offering cell site analysis as well as from 2010, each Police Force training several personnel in the discipline of Radio Frequency Propagation Surveys and purchasing equipment to enable them to carry out this role.
It may come as a surprise, but in my opinion, numerous private companies offering cell site analysis do not employ a qualified expert.
Private companies offering cell site analysis will often give the work to a staff member who may have a computing background and is employed primarily as a device examiner and as such is not a cell site expert. The qualifications, skills and experience of a computer forensics expert are not generally transferable to that of a cell site expert. Other companies will sub-contract the work as they do not have any in-house expertise. Others will outsource the surveying part of the job to an individual sub-contractor not employed by that company, and who may also work for other companies. None of this is conducive to best practice. I know of cell site “experts” who have never completed a radio frequency network survey.
There are also cell site experts who are effectively “one-man bands” who often offer a whole range of digital forensics services, including cell site analysis and are again, often not qualified and do not have a relevant background. This type of ‘expert’ often claims expertise in many, often unrelated disciplines. In my experience, this type of practitioner will normally perform handset downloads or other tasks for 80-90% of their work, with the occasional cell site instruction. This type of ‘expert’ can be dangerous in as much as their work cannot be peer reviewed and they are often not up to speed with current practices, leaving gaps in knowledge.
As well as the increase in cell site ‘experts’ in the private sector, since 2010, the vast majority of UK Police forces have trained several staff in radio frequency propagation surveying, through the College of Policing, while Police analysts are often tasked with the analytical aspects of the work, including production of cell site schedules and maps. Some, but not all, will have received training in this area. Analysts are also often used to provide evidence relating to mobile phone attribution.
The huge increase in cell site practitioners is causing confusion within the criminal justice system as the defined role of an “expert” seems to be at best ambiguous. With many other roles now existing, such as “Police Analyst”, “Cell Site Analyst” and “Radio Frequency Propagation Technician” There is no clarity on whether the evidence provided by these roles is expert testimony, or that of fact and this has the effect of diluting the expert status.
Frequently, in court, I am asked to meet with another “expert” only to find that in the majority of cases, they are not (and sometimes do not claim to be) experts in cell site analysis. Many do not have any formal qualifications or suitable experience. In fact, I know of cell site “experts” who have degrees in law, and other non-relevant areas. Some claim expertise as they have worked for a digital forensics’ provider for some years. Expertise can only come from working in an industry related to that which you are claiming to have expertise, the expert evidence comes from the work-place experience and qualifications within that industry which can be applied in a forensic manner.
To further confuse the issue, it can be the situation that a Police analyst taking the stand is referred to as “expert” by the court, even though they have not claimed expert status and have made no reference to Part 19 of the Criminal Procedure Rules. In fact, the Police analyst and often the RFPS technician role will often provide a statement declaring that their evidence will be that of fact and not opinion, i.e. a professional witness rather than expert. Conversely, I have seen statements by the “Radio Frequency Propagation Technician” which has declared that they have complied with part 19 of the criminal procedure rules, suggesting that they are in fact declaring expert status.
There are further issues with this situation. Whilst on the stand delivering what is thought to be factual evidence, it is very easy to stray into giving opinion when asked certain questions and this can mislead a jury who take it to be factual as that is the role of the witness. There are many features of cell site analysis which can be considered as ambiguous which may blur the lines between fact and opinion.
In court recently, the question was put to the court regarding the type of evidence which would be given by a Police Officer who the judge referred to as the “expert” while there was a discussion which followed effectively agreeing that the witness would be giving factual evidence, with some logical conclusions arising. During the evidence, naturally, there was a stray into opinion.
Again, in court recently, I have heard a senior ranking Police Officer, who had attended a two-week course on the subject, give a completely inaccurate description of a technical abbreviation and was incorrect in other areas of the evidence too. I have also heard an expert from a private company, who has no relevant formal qualifications or relevant industry experience, in a high-profile murder trial, giving completely inaccurate evidence. I have many other examples of self-declared ‘experts’ who lack the basic knowledge required to do the job and this is very worrying.
As cell site analysis is still effectively unregulated there is no mechanism in place to prevent “pseudo-experts” from operating in this discipline. The accreditation sought to be implemented by the Forensic Regulator will assist in validation and processes, but will not and is not meant to question the qualifications and background of the ‘expert’.
The ambiguity of the status of the various cell site practitioner roles when giving evidence in court, along with the inadequate evidence being given, could result in trials collapsing or a serious miscarriage of justice. There needs to be suitable clarification before cell site evidence is given regarding the status of the witness and the boundaries within which the evidence can be given.
Recently an ‘expert’ in Carbon Credits giving evidence in a fraud trial was exposed and found to have no relevant experience or qualifications in the area in which he was providing evidence, resulting in the collapse of the trial. (https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/carbon-credits-fraud-trial-collapses-andrew-ager-expert-witness-a8935921.html) This could lead to further scrutiny of previous trials in which this witness has provided ‘expert’ testimony.
It is inevitable that at some stage the use of unqualified ‘experts’ providing cell site analysis will result in a similar outcome, possibly leading to similar consequences.
It is relevant to mention that when law enforcement and defence solicitors instruct a cell site expert, they are encouraged to obtain the most competitive quote, which is understandable given the pressures on the Public Purse.
This practice, whilst necessary, will often result in the scenario whereby a non-qualified ‘expert’ is instructed as they are the cheapest, often providing wholly unrealistic figures, sometimes based on only partially completing the work, which will then attract further funding after the initial instruction. My opinion on this is in line with the expression; “if you think it’s expensive to hire a professional to do the job, wait until you hire an amateur”.
It is vital therefore that true expert status should be valued and protected, not diluted to the lowest level of competence necessary. We all know that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.
This insight is written with the intention of inviting comment from cell site practitioners who may have views on this matter. Greg Robinson can be contacted via cellsite@footprintinvestigations.com