A tale of two clients.

Posted on March 21, 2014. Filed under: Education | Tags: , , , |

I have different types of clients. I provide services to all of them.

For some, I am registered as a supplier, we agree a fee, I do the work to the agreed specification (or better), I submit an invoice, and they usually pay me within 30 days.

For others, I am asked to do some work, we agree a fee (usually expenses only as it is an education or CPD-related activity and I consider myself a responsible professional who is willing to share knowledge and experience), I do the work, I submit a claim form and I wait. And I wait. And I wait. And I ask them what’s going on. Then they find another form that I need to fill in, so I do that and submit it. And I wait and wait and wait while they drag their heels and spend countless hours impersonating the Vogon civil service.

Why the different treatment ? Am I not providing a service, at an agreed price, to both organisations ? Do I not provide that service ?

Well, the second entity doesn’t consider that we have a commercial arrangement. It’s a university, in fact just about every university I’ve given a guest lecture for in recent years, and the expenses systems they operate.

I’m tired of that situation. Practically every time I give a guest lecture, I end up giving an interest-free loan to an organisation that isn’t even paying a nominal fee for my services.

I think I’ve finally started to understand the underlying problem though. Universities do not operate in the commercial world. They pretend they do. They have “business plans” and teams dedicated to “business engagement” and “innovation”, but the reality is that they are simply just trying to demonstrate that they are hitting political targets better than the other Universities. They don’t actually have to achieve anything, they just have to be less terrible than the others and tick the right boxes for the current manifesto promises.

The relentless pursuit of handouts (grants) and sausage-machine degree awarding has created a bunch of institutions that, frankly, no longer really care about what they can do for society. All they want to know is how much they can extract from society in order to continue to exist in their own little indifferent bubbles.

Please note, by the way, I’m talking about the institutional level. At the actual level of the people there are many good and caring staff who do want to make a difference – I used to be one of them – but they are hobbled by the hordes of self-serving administrators whose only aim is to expand their own empires and preserve their own pensions.

Time for a shake-up I say, let’s change the way we measure success in our HE establishments. Let’s stop looking at how much they produce and let’s start looking at what real effect they have. Forget impact ratings on journals, and counts of graduate destinations – let’s look at what they really produce – where’s the change for good ?

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Research, funding and reputation

Posted on March 20, 2014. Filed under: Education, forensic | Tags: , , , , , |

I had an interesting conversation, last night, with some fascinating figures from the world of forensic science. Since the whole event was under Chatham House rules, I’m not going to disclose who was present or even what most of our discussion was about, but there was one thing we touched on where I have a fundamental disagreement with at least one senior figure. That area is academic research in forensic science.

The view taken is that the problem lies in funding – in order to stimulate forensic science research, money needs to be available. Well, great – yes, that can help and I’m delighted that FoSciSIG is looking at this. I was certainly lucky enough, during my academic career, to be awarded some EPSRC funding for a project on Cyberprofiling, and I think we did achieve something, but we had a bigger problem. We really struggled to get our results published and to be taken seriously.

Our problem was that, at that time, there was no well-recognised journal for digital forensics, so we had to either target more mainstream computing & info. sec. journals, or go for more general forensic science. In the case of the former, we had problems because our research was very much applied research and hence didn’t have quite the level of generality and “blue sky” content that was expected, and for the latter, we were up against reviewers who were more familiar with “conventional” biology, chemistry and physics type forensic science. In either case, we had to consider the “reputation” value of where we were going to publish too. It’s been a common problem for forensic science researchers for years and it has a nasty knock-on effect.

In order to get published, you often have to seek out a journal for the scientific area, rather than the forensic, and modify your writing to suit that journal. Pressure is often brought to bear to get your work in something with a high “impact” rating rather than the most appropriate channel for dissemination. As a result, your work can be categorised under the more general science, and the forensic nature is often missed. When research managers look at your output, you are no longer a forensic scientist, so the department doesn’t see any benefit in supporting forensic science and that message spreads. Don’t believe me ? Look at the Research Assessments.

The net effect is that, contrary to what senior academics might say, forensic science can be seen as something which is a spin-off from other research, something of an accidental side-effect which just happens because of good science, not something that deserves to be a discipline in its own right influenced by the needs of investigators and courts, so departmental management don’t encourage it, and without their backing there’s no call for funding bodies to take it more seriously.

Out in the practitioner world, one message we all receive very quickly is that the forensic sciences cannot stand on their own – we have to work in teams, with results from different sciences being integrated and influencing the investigative strategy. Heck, that’s even a fundamental message in most degree programmes now.

I was lucky enough to be a computer scientist in a department full of biologists, chemists, physicists and crime scene specialists once. I learnt a hell of a lot from and it changed my approach to digital investigations. If we could just achieve something similar in the research world, we might do something really significant.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please do share them in the comments.

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Words cannot be unread – but I sometimes wish they could.

Posted on September 12, 2013. Filed under: All, Education, life |

The proof is not in the pudding, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

One does not “go direct”. Go to gaol. Go directly to gaol. Do not pass Go. Do not collect £200. Take the direct route if you wish, but go directly.

Mr. Clarkson, if something is 4 times greater than 1, it is 5, not 4.

I of haveten thought that Terry Pratchett’s least useful contribution to the literary word lies in the abuse have “of”.

There is too much loose use of “loose”. I fear we may lose the correct meaning.

Little Johnny went to the shops and brought some pies. I wonder if he bought them or was taking them there to sell ?

Clothes may be made of cloths.

They’re, there, their. It’s all better now.






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Dear Sir/Madam – I’m looking for a placement

Posted on March 28, 2013. Filed under: Education | Tags: , , , , , |

Dear student

Thankyou for your email. Unfortunately we are not in a position to offer placements at the moment, but may be able to offer some advice which will help you secure one with one of the larger firms (assuming you read past this paragraph).

Firstly, when sending emails such as this, it is a good idea to use your official University email address. Hotmail/Yahoo/Googlemail looks unprofessional and regularly diverts straight to the spam bin.

Secondly, try finding out who you are writing to and direct your email to them in person. My details are not hard to find on our website, but you used our general enquiry address. Again, this looks unprofessional and suggests you are mailbombing rather than being selective in your applications.

Thirdly, you’ve told me what you want – but how can you help me ? or anyone else you contact ? What can you add to the organisation ? Why do we need you ? How much do you know about us ? (give me a clue that you’ve done some research and particularly want to work for me, not just any old firm).

Fourthly, tell the person reading your email something about the course, what your interests are and what your prospects are. At the moment, all I see is that you have to do a placement, not that you *want* a placement.

Finally, rather than making me open your CV, tell the reader a bit more about yourself – make them want to read your CV. Remember you have just as long as it takes for someone to hit “delete” to make a good impression. Most of us receive several of these a week – you need to stand out. You haven’t even told me which University you are studying at so I can’t evaluate you without opening an attachment which might contain malware.

I wish you well in your search for a placement, and hope you will accept these suggestions in the spirit in which they are offered.

Angus Marshall, CEO and ex-academic (who used to find placements for his own students rather than making them do it themselves).

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Excellent news

Posted on November 29, 2011. Filed under: All, Education, forensic | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Yet again, other activities have kept me away from this blog for far too long. Personally, I think that’s probably a good thing. A mix of casework and research commissions means I can afford to eat properly again (and those who know me will know how important it is that I maintain my physique – particularly in the current high winds).

The major projects that are keeping me busy are on a new website : Forensic Excellence where work on two of the three major elements of “forensic” quality systems is underway. The other bit of news is that I have an interview for funding of some work on the third element, and hope to be able to kick that work off towards the middle of next year.

Onwards and sideways!

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ISO ISO baby – part 1

Posted on October 8, 2010. Filed under: All, Education, forensic | Tags: , , , , |

As I write this, it’s 8:50 a.m. on Friday in Berlin. I’ve been here since Sunday night attending a meeting of ISO/IEC JTC1 SC27 (that’s the Information Technology – Security Techniques sub-committee to anyone who isn’t fluent in standards committee numbers).

It’s my first time at an event of this type, though I’ve been to a few BSI meetings to discuss the work that’s going on within ISO that relates to “forensic” work. More on that in the next post.

What I’ve found fascinating this week, though, is the way language is being used. Within ISO the convention is to use english for all meetings and documents – but it isn’t quite the english that you or I know. It isn’t the Queen’s english, it isn’t American english, it isn’t even Euro-english – it’s something quite strange. It’s ISO english.

Words that we think we know the meaning of have to be defined and, much like Humpty Dumpty, when a drafting committee (the body responsible for defining a standard) uses a word, it means exactly what that committee wants it to mean, no more and no less.

As a result, ISO has had to produce a Concepts Database to manage the definitions. Try it – see if the words you thought you understood have the same meaning(s). You’ll find it at Don’t bother looking for “forensic”, by the way – it isn’t there.

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Ideas beginning to sprout

Posted on September 15, 2010. Filed under: Education, forensic | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , |

Last week, I was in Brussels for the launch of the latest Framework Programme 7 security call. In amongst all the usual work proposals for activities on counter-terrorism, border controls, communications and collaboration, there are a couple of items with the “F” word in them. (calm down Mr. Ramsay – I mean Forensic, of course).

They are “Digital Forensic Capability” and “Advanced Forensic Framework”. Both topics call for exploration of methods to improve the perceived reliability of evidence, demonstrate competence of scientists and allow for greater portability of evidence from one jurisdiction to another.

As I read through the topic summaries, it struck me that forensic science may not be in quite the poor state that they seem to imply. Generally, there is an acceptance that ISO17020 & ISO17025 standards can be applied to crime scene & forensic science (through the addition of intrepetive guidance documents such as ILAC G19) and most good conventional labs are already accredited to those standards.

In England we have the Code of Conduct being produce by the Forensic Science Regulator, which serves as further clarification and it looks like the the ISO SC27 group’s work on Digital Forensic Standards (More on that when I get back from Berlin next month) may well produce something very concrete for digital forensics in the next year or two.

However, those deal with the short to medium term situation. These projects are an opportunity for the forensic science community to come together to share experiences across disciplines, involving the litigators and the investigators too, to look to the future and agree frameworks for validation of future methods. They’re also a great chance for use to take a step back and look more closely at how we train & educate our scientists, investigators and legal representatives  to see if we can agree some common minimum standards which will allow evidence & professionals to move more freely around Europe, if not the world. If we can reach agreement, we can reduce time and cost wasted in dealing with material which should either never exist, or is completely non-contentious.

Best of all, it’s a requirement that any project proposals must involve several countries and the very nature of these projects means that they will be multi-disciplinary too. Even if we don’t get the money (I have two outlines circulating for comments already – email me if you would like to get involved), there are some great opportunities to establish new partnerships just through the bidding process.

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Posted on April 8, 2010. Filed under: Education, forensic | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

or re-use ? Either way – this article (thanks for bringing it to my attention, Darren) expands on something that gets a mention in my next IRQ column in Digital Forensics Magazine – so that’s saved me a job (Oh! the irony!) for this week.

The regulator’s working group on digital forensics met for the first time in nearly a year yesterday – and the validation/verification debate kicked off again. Interestingly there was a clear split between the software engineers and the rest of the community – I’m going to ponder and reflect for a while longer and then post something here about it, I think. Meanwhile, if you haven’t seen the papers I’ve produced (with the support and help of some industry figures), you’ll find them here.

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Posted on October 21, 2009. Filed under: All, Education | Tags: , , |

Over the years I’ve had a number of enquiries about becoming a PhD student within my fledgling research group (when I had one). Every single one of them seemed to think that a) I had plenty of topics for them to work on and b) I had lots of money to fund them.

Let’s get a couple of things straight – in the UK, very few universities or other research organisations have funding for PhD research unless it is associated with an established high profile programme with external funding allocated to it. The majority of PhD students are, therefore, financed by themselves, their employers or their governments.

This also means that, although the potential supervisor (Director of Studies in PhD-speak) might have a lot of good ideas it is morally and ethically dubious for him or her to attempt to dictate the topic to the student. A secondary issue is that it is very difficult to judge the ability of a potential PhD student from just a CV and a few lines of references. For this reason, most responsible DoSes will ask the applicant to come up with a research proposal – usually of one or two pages – to allow them to assess the candidates suitability. They should also ask the crucial question “who’s paying? ” (strangely enough, once this question is asked about 75% of applicants give up – makes you wonder what the motivation was really ? )

The proposals are quite informative – some are just page after page of material ripped from the ‘net (do you think we really don’t know the sources better than you do ? ) and go straight into the bin whilst muttering the word “plagiarism” again. Others read more like the sort of essay one would expect from a school pupil. Poorly referenced, ill-thought out and full of journalistic tone and opinion. The good ones, though few and far between, are a joy to read. They contain a properly considered argument explaining what the general research area is, have an indication of what the critical research questions might be (these haunt PhD candidates for the rest of their lives…) and how they might be answered. There will be proper references to published recent papers on the subject (not just a list of books and webpages).

So – if you’re thinking of applying for a PhD – prepare first – please don’t just send an e-mail asking if there are any PhD place – tell the potential DoS what you want to do and it’s going to be paid for – that might get you to the next stage – the interview. At that – there will be one crucial question : “Why do you want a PhD ? ” – and there is a right answer to that – but I’m not going to give away all the secrets now.

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Book website & academia rears its ugly ugly head again

Posted on October 12, 2009. Filed under: Education, forensic, life | Tags: |

Never put off till tomorrow what you can leave to next week – seems to have been my mantra as far as the book website ( ) is concerned. However, now I have iWeb on the Macbook, progress is being made rapidly. Exercises for chapters 1 and 2 are already up and I’ll probably have something for Chapter 3 done within the next hour. Those who’ve sat through my lectures or conference presentations on the topics may find some of the example familiar, but I’m bringing them up to date with some stuff based on real casework.

iWeb is proving to be a really nice bit of software to work with, not least because the HTML it generates actually passes W3C validation at the first attempt. The automatic build of the navigation menu is a nice touch too. OK, so it’s still producing simple basic websites without much backend structure – but as a tool to get content online in a clean and usable form in a hurry it scores 9/10 in my book (nothing ever gets 1o/10 btw. – well maybe once in a lifetime)

Latest news : It looks like I’ll be retaining my links with academia as I am in the process of discussing a visiting lectureship with another University. It’s an unpaid post, but allows to me use the title when it is beneficial for research/funding and similar projects.

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    This is the weblog of Angus M. Marshall, forensic scientist, author of Digital Forensics : digital evidence in criminal investigations and MD at n-gate ltd.


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