Online crime investigation: How the industry has changed

18 December, 2020


Online crime investigation: How the industry has changed

In a one-on-one interview, Matt Burns tells us all about how the industry has developed since CameraForensics began, and the key lessons the team has learnt along the way.

How has CameraForensics developed since it began?

We came from a technology development background, not a law enforcement one, so we were learning more about the industry and their challenges on the job.

Our approach started solely with victim identification. As an outsider looking in, we had the perception that this was the key moment – that once a victim was identified they would inevitably be rescued, and the case was closed. However, we quickly realised after interacting with the community more deeply that this was just the beginning of the journey; that from the victim’s perspective the damage continues long after they’ve been found.

This reality is what encouraged us to broaden our scope and apply our technology into other areas where we can help victims. For example, preventing the spread of CSE material, or helping organisations who are trying to remove it from the internet, works to mitigate the long-term impacts of revictimization.

We also discovered the deeper impacts felt by law enforcement agents who work on these cases. Their mental health can be severely affected by investigating CSE crimes, and so the welfare of investigators also become a cause close to our hearts.

Driven by these insights, we decided early on to ensure everything we do is guided by the purpose of helping the users of our tools and the victims of these crimes. Whether that’s providing law enforcement with the best investigative tools to help overcome their personal challenges and enable them to do their jobs effectively, or actively seeking innovative ways to reduce CSE activities and protect more victims.

How have online criminal investigations changed over the years?

More challenges arise every year – the amount of material on the internet constantly increases globally, which is only perpetuated by the growing accessibility of technological devices.

That being said, this is partly due to better reporting; the efforts of organisations like National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) who detect and report CSE crimes online and the improvement of identification technologies. In fact, victim identification as a field has massively expanded over the past 10 years, with more countries implementing it as a necessary element of investigation.

Organisations across the globe are also coming together to enhance their victim identification processes. This used to be a manual and very isolated process, but now there are national databases and structured operations in place to create a more organised, effective way of managing the work.

Ultimately this means that more and more of these cases are being found and identified, so overall, we are seeing hugely positive change in this industry which is really encouraging.

How has the development of criminal investigation technology changed?

The way identification technology, digital image forensics technology, investigative platforms and more have developed over the years follows a similar story.

There have been massive improvements since we started; primarily supported by increased collaboration and knowledge sharing between organisations and countries. This mindset of partnership and collective effort has been integral to a lot of the progress the industry has made. Project VIC is a great example of industry members in all areas getting together to tackle common problems.

We believe building these networks is the key to getting the edge against online crime, and so we need to keep strengthening and developing these relationships.

What have been your key takeaways over the years?

Certainly, the severity of the incidental impacts of CSE crimes, such as the long-lasting re-victimisation to previous victims and the effects on investigator mental health, was something we only ever fully understood after entering this industry. It’s a huge problem that can easily be overlooked from a position of inexperience, so we have made solving it a critical part of our collective mission.

But the biggest takeaway has been the recognition that there is so much work to be done. Crime is always present, but it’s also covert. People need to take proactive action against it or else we’ll never gain the upper hand.

Crime also isn’t something that gets a lot of attention outside of the industry that tackles it; it needs to be talked about more and given more dedication from key players who have the means to help stop it.

How will digital investigations develop in the future?

Unfortunately, we expect sexual exploitation crimes to become much more involved. It already has, and will continue to, grow beyond people sharing images to more sophisticated crimes such as coercion, grooming, and people commissioning abuse.

In response, CameraForensics, and many other organisations we know, are developing new tools and building new collaborations to tackle this eventuality. We need to constantly remain equipped and ready; through robust training and the development of innovative techniques.

Another key consideration that is currently gaining more prevalence is the balance of public safety and privacy. This is something that is harder to achieve as more data becomes available, but also something we always need to consider when developing tools.

What can technology providers do to meet these changing needs?

Maintaining a collaborative and open approach is the most effective way to meet new challenges. We lean heavily on the insight and feedback of law enforcement, to understand their needs so we can build the tools they want and need.

To find out more about our work at CameraForensics, get in touch.

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