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Getting Ahead In Modern Investigations: Digital Forensics Training For All

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Education is the job of a lifetime, said David Foster Wallace[1], and it is true that continuing professional development is the job of a lifetime in work. The field of criminal investigation is an area in which this is most definitely true. New advances in all aspects of the job of detection emerge constantly, and the body of literature and guidance grows exponentially by the year, while onward progress in the field of forensic science continues apace. Meanwhile, criminals continuously adapt to succeed in their crimes and remain ahead of the law. A good investigator, intelligence analyst or forensic practitioner must continuously seek out new approaches and information if they are to remain successful in their work.

The challenge of applying professional learning to our job might seem straightforward enough most of the time, as we tend generally to attend (or get sent on!) courses that have been selected for their relevance to our day-to-day tasks. What is more difficult to do, and can often be missed by both staff and management, is the task of continually scanning the environment professionals are working in, and identifying training needs that are so intrinsic to the task at hand that it is easy to miss them.

For some time, this was the problem with the digital aspect of policing, and the ability of law enforcement to keep up with the increasing influence of data on criminal investigations. The digital element of casework slowly became so omnipresent that the profession finally acknowledged that changes need to be made. It is no longer that case that at the start of an investigation a general assumption would be made that at some point, someone, somehow, would “take a look at the data.” A more structured approach has evolved, and the emergence of the Digital Media Investigator role is just one recent change that reflects that.

However the pace of change continues at such a rate that the criminal justice system has to work hard to keep up, let alone get ahead; Digital policing specialists will often repeat the mantra that “digital policing is just policing” i.e. this is the water we’re swimming in nowadays. The head of digital forensics at the Metropolitan Police Service gave evidence to the House of Lords’ Science and Technology committee in 2018, saying that “90% of crime … has a digital element, in the broadest sense … CCTV,  communications data,  social media data, [etc.].[2]

Data really is everywhere. Victims, perpetrators and witnesses are continually laying a data trail with their devices, the apps and services they use, their use of public spaces. Even the act of walking in the street results in an individual’s likeness being captured and stored in databases hundreds of times a day. By definition, an investigation into the most minor of offences must always include an assessment of the data sources that might produce leads and investigative opportunities. And new data sources emerge every day.

It is against this backdrop that the government, law enforcement and forensic authorities have all in their own way been encouraging and occasionally collaborating on modernisation. No less than a Royal Commission is now planned “to review and improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the criminal justice process,[3]” and a major focus of this enquiry is expected to include digital investigation. While the Royal Commission will take a number of years to make its recommendations, it is recognised that there is a real and pressing need for change right now: The 2019 report of the Lords’ Science and Technology Committee on the situation urgently  recommended “a strategy for the ongoing training of all forensic science practitioners, with a particular focus on maintaining competence in niche disciplines and providing expert evidence in a legal setting[4]

Meanwhile, the College of Policing has established a base set of requirements for the modern DMI to attain accreditation and practise their role, and across the country forces have been training DMIs to these new standards. Even the Information Commissioner’s Office has an interest in seeing standards set, recommending in June of this year: “A national training standard for all aspects of mobile phone extraction activity … for investigating officers and decision makers[5].”

After the establishment of standards, the next challenge for the sector is meeting the demand. As well as the training of forensic practitioners and DMIs, it’s clear that all new probationers and investigators will at the very least require a basic awareness of the digital aspects of investigation. While the government has committed to an uplift in police numbers of 20,000 by 2023, serving officers continue to retire or depart the profession early, meaning that the true number of new police recruits over the next three years to replace the departed and still meet the uplift target has been estimated at up to 53,000. That’s a lot of training.

Forensic Analytics is amongst the companies leading the charge in this area. Since the company’s inception in 2013, we have offered accredited training in radio frequency propagation surveying and cell site analysis, communications data processing and interpretation, and have added to that portfolio over the years with further niche offerings in digital media investigation, Wi-Fi record interpretation, data processing, ANPR interpretation, courtroom skills and many more subject areas. We now collaborate with a number of other companies in this space to offer the community a broader range of accredited training in Digital Media Investigation, OSint, Intelligence Analysis and a range of other topics.

To return to the report of the Science and Technology committee, they recommend more than just changes to the approach of law enforcement and forensic practitioners: The legal profession is the subject of yet another recommendation as follows: “all advocates practising in the criminal courts should, as part of  their continuing professional  development,  be  required to undertake training in the use of scientific evidence in court  and basic scientific principles  such  as  probability,  scientific  inference  and  research  methods,[6]” and further: “There needs to  be a better understanding among legal practitioners of the timescales involved in interrogating and analysing digital evidence[7].

To that end, Forensic Analytics is now working with a number of colleagues in the legal profession to develop a range of CPD events and courses tailored directly for criminal defence solicitors, CPS lawyers and barristers.

If you work in the field of Digital Media Investigations, Forensic Science, or the Legal Profession, and you require training to stay ahead of the rapid changes in the digital space, contact us at training@forensicanalytics.co.uk.

 

About the Author

Andrew Fahey has worked for ten years at a United Nations affiliated International Criminal Tribunal, working with high volumes of call data and project managing the development of courtroom software that enabled live analysis and mapping of call data. Before then, Andrew spent ten years with the Metropolitan Police Service on serious and organised crime and terrorism investigations, all of which involved substantial telephone and location data. He has a MSc in Crime and Criminal Justice Studies.

©Forensic Analytics 2020

 

 

[1] In his famous “This is Water” speech to graduates of Kenyon College in 2005. (https://fs.blog/2012/04/david-foster-wallace-this-is-water/) The theme of the speech is about so much more than education, and the central message “This Is Water” makes the speech a must read (or listen) for anyone thinking seriously about the challenge of applying their learning to life out in the world.

[2] House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee 3rd Report of Session 2017–19 (HL Paper 333) Forensic science and the criminal justice system: a blueprint for change. 1 May 2019

[3] Queen’s speech Dec 2019

[4] Ibid, Recommendation 13, paragraph 116.

[5] Information Commissioner’s Office: Mobile phone data extraction by police forces in England and Wales Investigation report June 2020, Recommendation 9

[6] Ibid, paragraph 136

[7] Ibid, paragraph 149

Author

  • Andrew is a highly skilled criminal justice and digital forensics expert, and runs our Training strategy and services, working with law enforcement agencies, crime and justice specialists, and government officials. He has worked on multiple international investigations into organised crime and terrorism, and is an advocate for continuing professional development in the Criminal Justice Sector. 

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