Digital forensics is a multifaceted and constantly evolving discipline that benefits from open research and shared knowledge, so we were delighted to be asked to be involved in some ground-breaking research conducted by Abigayil Hopkins-Flanagan as part of her MSc Crime and Forensic Science programme at University College London’s (UCL) Centre for the Forensic Sciences.
The MSc Crime and Forensic Science is a multidisciplinary degree that offers students a unique opportunity to gain forensic science skills and methods within a holistic crime science framework.
We have been working with UCL for several years, assisting MSc Crime and Forensic Science students by providing training on communications data/cell site analysis topics and support for their individual research projects, if they involve communications data or cell site analysis. To assist Abigayil with her research, we provided additional tutoring, technical support, access to forensic RF survey devices and help with planning and executing the practical parts of her project.
In her dissertation ‘A Preliminary Investigation into the Accuracy and Consistency of Radio Frequency Surveys across a Loaded and Unloaded Network and between a Rural and Urban Location’, Abigayil notes that very little empirical research has been carried out on the methods and techniques employed to support forensic RF survey activities. Specifically, apart from some important research undertaken by the FSS (Forensic Science Service) a few years ago, very little academic work had been undertaken to look at the repeatability of RF survey results, leading Abigayil to pose the question ‘if I return to the same locations on different days, will my survey results reflect that same set of cells?’.
To investigate the accuracy and repeatability of radio frequency surveys as a tool for cell site analysis, Abigayil carried out surveys on a series of weekdays in the City of London when the network was busy (loaded) and on weekends when the network was less busy (unloaded). Additional surveys were also undertaken in the rural location of Horsley, Surrey again in loaded and unloaded states.
The survey results were examined and compared against each other to provide an insight into the accuracy of radio frequency surveys and how they may differ according to the variables being tested.
Abigayil concludes: “Results show that there is no significant difference between a loaded and unloaded network, but there are small variations on different days across 2G, 3G and 4G networks. The accuracy was found to be greater for the rural 4G surveys than the urban surveys. However, similar variation was found on the 2G and 3G network for both rural and urban locations. It is important to understand how radio frequency surveys might differ to inform forensic practice and ensure the results collated and presented in court are reliable. Further research is required, due to the lack of empirical research into digital forensics methods”.
These are important conclusions because the lack of empirical evidence as to the reliability and repeatability of RF survey results has sometimes been used in an attempt to undermine the accuracy and applicability of this type of evidence.
The UCL Centre for the Forensic Sciences is a ground-breaking interdisciplinary initiative that brings together academics and practitioners committed to developing forensic science, with a particular focus on the interpretation of forensic science evidence. The Centre is leading research that is empirically based, casework informed and focused on delivering real world impact.