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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Contracting

Posted on March 10, 2011. Filed under: forensic, life | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , |

Just recently I’ve been having discussions about possibly becoming a contractor for a little while and it’s thrown up a question that’s haunted me ever since I started examining other people’s computers.

I’m a fan of open-source software and I really do believe that one of the benefits I offer as a consultant is the fact that I don’t use the same examination kit as everyone else. It means that when I check their results or they check mine we are using significantly different tools, and mine are open for anyone to scrutinise at the source-code level. So, if we find a discrepancy we can dig deep into at least one the tools, if necessary, to find the reason why. It’s proper dual-tooling, or as close as we can get for now.

Now, in the past I’ve had to explain this (because there are two or three tools that everyone expects to see and eyebrows are raised when I don’t mention them ) but it has never stopped me getting an expert witness job. The critical word there is “expert” – in that role I am supposed to exercise my judgment to select the best tools and methods for the job.

However, a contractor is different creature – if I do get offered this job, I have to fit into someone else’s working environment and do things their way with their tools. I can do it. In my academic life I had to learn new skills, tools etc. very quickly and be able to teach them to other people. It’s a knack that a good lecturer picks up soon, or they don’t survive in labs. for long. The question is, will the client believe I can do it or will they wait until they find someone with the right piece of paper instead ?

My argument, for what it’s worth, is that I can learn the tool quickly and, because I have a background in computer science and am used to creating little ad-hoc tools whenever I need them, I can check the tool’s results in a way that someone who just know the program might not be able to.

We shall see.

Meanwhile, in the world of standards and regulation things have gone quiet in the Regulator’s office. His contract has been extended for another 3 years, but I rather think he’s suffering from budget cuts elsewhere. No matter, plans are well underway for the next ISO meeting in Singapore where we will be trying to get some new work approved to go beyond the current ISO/IEC 27037 and ensure we have guidance for a complete process from planning through acquisition to analysis, with proper validation all the way through.

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    About

    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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