What lockdowns and remote working mean for online crime
By Joseph Jones from Paliscope & Dave Ranner from CameraForensics
Victim Identification analysis in child sexual abuse investigations is often the process of extracting meaningful intelligence from imagery that contains a victim. The aim is to identify information that will ultimately lead you to find, and safeguard, the victim in question.
The potential here is endless. From metadata, to contextual intelligence, to time stamps, there is a wealth of details which can be uncovered and used to progress this objective. As such a rich data source, Victim ID practises, underpinned by a victim-centric approach, can be an extremely valuable focus for investigators. Despite this value, there are often barriers preventing officers from effectively integrating victim-centric approaches like Victim ID into their workflows.
In this article, Johann Hofmann from Griffeye and Dave Ranner from CameraForensics discuss the all-too-common challenges investigators face when trying to adopt victim-centric approaches, and how technology could be used to help officers overcome these restrictions and better harness the value of Victim ID.
A victim-first approach to imagery and video analysis is the process that brings the victim into focus – a mentality which is commonly viewed as indispensable to the solving of child sexual exploitation (CSE) cases.
Typically, this field has been performed by specialists, who receive evidence from the frontline teams. However, the field of Victim ID is evolving. The value of Victim ID intelligence for officers in every role is becoming more established. We’ve seen a distinct trend whereby Victim ID techniques are being incorporated into frontline workflows, from digital forensics to the investigating unit.
Integrating this approach throughout departments and agencies has the following benefits for investigators:
This transition is already occurring in various regions with additional support being given to Victim ID practises.
For example, Interpol and Europol have each developed a Victim ID taskforce where specialists from different countries get together and dedicate days to reviewing cases and identifying victims. These exercises are designed to break down silos and maximise resources through active collaboration. With numerous investigations and several dozen victims identified, this approach has proven extremely successful.
That being said, we understand that there are still many difficult realities investigators and officers face which can make adopting Victim ID practises on an everyday basis challenging. These are the issues we try to understand more deeply when we create our tools:
Investigators are already facing a sea of data and evidence gained from Victim ID only adds to the volume. Clues could be lurking in any number of devices, each containing billions of data points to sift through.
This makes finding meaning intelligence near impossible when relying on manual methods – especially for cases involving prolific offenders who may be linked to dozens of victims and offenders. The sad truth is that it’s unlikely that every one of their crimes would be discovered using manual processes.
A natural consequence of massive data volumes is case backlogs. The obvious impact of this is that cases get solved, and victims get found, at a slower pace. But many investigators in these situations are also forced to decide which cases to prioritise, often with little information on which to base this decision, which can be a serious source of stress.
Silos can arise as many different teams, from Victim ID specialists to frontline officers, are involved in an investigative workflow. This can cause both data and activity redundancies.
Investigators can unwittingly end up researching the same crime, or examining the same data, or even searching for a victim who has already been identified. This needlessly subjects investigators to greater workloads, which claims precious resource, and greater mental stress.
Criminals can obstruct some of the data available through imagery or videos that would otherwise be gained during Victim ID analysis. But mistakes are common – and investigators may only need to take advantage of one in order to uncover clues.
Working in the field of CSE is emotionally and mentally challenging. Every day investigators are presented with the brutality of these crimes and with every image this burden becomes greater. The common challenges we’ve outlined only make this burden heavier and, understandably, many investigators decide to leave this field in order to protect their own state of mind.
It’s clear that the realities of rising workloads and mental stress are at odds with efforts to incorporate Victim ID practises into more investigations and non-specialist teams. The investigators we speak to are already battling with limited resources and implementing data-rich approaches may push this struggle too far.
This issue has been further emphasised by the pandemic as cases and reports of CSE are becoming more frequent.
There is no simple solution to remove investigator challenges or quickly embed Victim ID practises into every officer’s workflow. However, we believe technology plays a role in helping overcome some of the common hurdles so investigators can dedicate more focus to what’s important to them – the victims.
Technology solutions have the potential to free up investigators’ time, help identify clues faster, share knowledge, and conquer excessive backlogs and redundancies.
Everything from the simplest solutions, such as sorting and filtering data, to advanced techniques, such as automation and Machine Learning, help investigators keep pace with criminal activity. Not only do these features help speed up workflows, but they can spot small, yet ground-breaking, clues like GPS data quickly and consistently.
Breaking down these common barriers would help agents sift through data and uncover clues more efficiently. Ultimately, this could support investigators to adopt more victim-centric approaches without the added resource or emotional pressure that would usually be associated with this kind of image analysis.
CameraForensics and Griffeye work closely with officers to understand how we can best help them to eradicate their investigative roadblocks using technological capabilities. Our platforms are designed to help investigators turn overwhelming amounts of data into valuable assets; streamlining time-consuming activities like searching and analysing image data in order to carve out a clear path to intelligence.
There are also features which directly tackle the specific challenges outlined above. For example, Griffeye’s Intelligence Database technology means investigators don’t have to review material that’s already been looked at, and the CameraForensics deconfliction tool which is in development will optionally notify users if they have performed the same search.
As technology providers, we feel we have an equal responsibility in this industry to do whatever we can to support the investigative mission. From removing CSE imagery online to creating user-focused tools that aid Victim ID practises, every second we can give back to investigators is a step in the right direction.
Nevertheless, our responsibility extends beyond putting tools in your hands. We believe sharing support, knowledge, and capacity is fundamentally important, and acting with a mission-focused mindset must always come first.