Inside the world of digital forensics with Suffolk police’s cybercrime unit
- Credit: Karen Willie
The world of forensic science has evolved over centuries to utilise the analysis of blood, DNA, fingerprints, ballistics and toxicology in solving crime.
But the biggest development in recent years has been the use of digital technology to secure convictions and prove innocence.
As society’s use of machines magnifies, so does the requirement for police to keep up with advancements – meaning some of the items held at Suffolk’s digital forensic unit can “make or break” an investigation.
Not only can the contents of a hard drive be examined to crack a case, but phone activity can now be scrutinised in the aftermath of serious road collisions.
Detective Inspector Estelle Skuse heads up the cybercrime, digital forensics and fraud investigations unit at Halesworth police station, where the volume of data being sent for analysis has doubled in the last year.
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Her 11-strong joint Norfolk and Suffolk team became one of the first handful endorsed by UKAS (United Kingdom Accreditation Service) in January.
“This work is becoming more and more important,” said DI Skuse.
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“The size of evidence is becoming a lot bigger. The amount of data we deal with has doubled in the last year. The growth of digital data is increasing exponentially.
“We now have sat-nav, wearable tech, Alexa, Google Home – even kitchen appliances that can talk to each other.
“Everything we used to do on computers, we can now do on mobile devices. Interestingly, although the number of jobs referred to us has gone up 13% in the last year, the number of devices we look at has reduced by 8%, while the volume of stuff on those devices has increased 203% because we’re seeing devices now capable of storing two terabytes of memory (room for two million photos).
“The recognition from UKAS realises a goal we set ourselves a couple of years ago and allows people to have trust in what we do. It shows we can produce concise and accurate information when a case gets to court. UKAS will now come in to assess us as things change – and they do, phenomenally quickly.”
During an investigation into the fatal stabbing of Ipswich man Dean Stansby in February 2017, police used phone records to uncover a wider drug supply conspiracy by an operation known as ‘AJ and Sky’ into Ipswich and Felixstowe. Meanwhile, computers and mobile devices can be seized in the investigation of child exploitation and fraud, for gathering evidence of harassment and stalking, or in the aftermath of serious road collisions.
DI Skuse said: “Some of the stuff we find will make or break a case. We’re tending to use more and more digital evidence in certain types of investigation. Road traffic collisions are a good example. We’re increasingly looking at digital examination in the more serious investigations. We’re able to see what was happening with phones around the time of road traffic collisions. It’s good for us to remind the public that we can do that.”
The unit launched in June 2015 after almost 7,000 fraud and cybercrime reports in Suffolk the previous year, including what are referred to as ‘pure cybercrimes’ under the Computer Misuse Act – offences that can only be committed with the use of a computer – as well as traditional offences now committed online, like blackmail and extortion, where digital evidence might help prove or disprove an allegation.
DI Skuse said: “Our lives have evolved, and police are keeping up with that. It’s a challenge because it’s costly, and the level of change is phenomenal.
“We can’t do whatever we want. We have to comply with RIPA (Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act) and other legislation around surveillance. We’re answerable to the public, and must comply with checks and balances.
“We’re a long way off a Big Brother scenario. In this country, the police are scrutinised and challenged by organisations regarding ethics. If the world of technology comes up with something we can do, it doesn’t necessarily mean we should.
“We also have a finite amount of resources, so we have to use them reasonably, but we have the option open to us for more serious offences.
“The digital world is not regulated in the same way as the real world. New apps are coming out every day and there’s very little oversight. The internet has no borders.
“I would like there to be more onus on companies producing digital products to be ethical and compliant, but I think people will ultimately vote with their feet.”
On top of forensics, witness statements and traditional forms of evidence, digital case loads magnify the amount of disclosure in court, where prosecutors are required to hand evidence to defence teams.
But disclosure of electronic documents which are of no relevance to proceedings can put time and cost burdens on either party.
“If we printed out everything sent and received on a phone, it would take years to look at, so officers need to know what to look for,” said DI Skuse.
“We’re doing extra training around disclosure, to make it easier to present evidence and find that needle in a haystack – whether it’s to prove or disprove something.
“We disclose what we believe is relevant, and we may have to look at it again, depending on the response of the defence.
“We’ve spoken to judges to tell them what’s possible and what’s not, and that was a really helpful process.
“We realise it’s an issue in a criminal justice system based on innocence until proven guilty.”