Feeling that experts aren’t right

Posted on July 3, 2016. Filed under: All, life | Tags: , , , , , |

A little thought provoked by an exchange on Facebook. This is a slightly expanded copy of what I wrote in that exchange and is by no means complete.

The most dangerous phrase I’ve ever heard is “I feel”. Few people seem to believe or decide anything any more, they always seem to “feel”.

I wish more people would challenge any apparent decision that begins with “I feel” or “I felt” (or that other weaselly phrase “I’m passionate about”). It may be a correct decision, but arrived at entirely by accident. It’s like trying to navigate from London to Adelaide by always following the prettiest or easiest road – it might get you there eventually, but it makes it a lot harder, takes longer than it should and probably leads to a lot of dead-ends and backtracking that others already knew about. We don’t accept “gut instinct” or “feeling that he’s a wrong ‘un” in the criminal justice system these days, so why should we accept it elsewhere?

Evidence is hard work. Thinking and rationalising is harder. Emotions are easy – go for the one that generates the warm fuzzy “feeling”. But then, when scientists are so often portrayed as being on the autistic spectrum (cf Sheldon Cooper), it makes it easy for those who are not in that world to claim that scientists and other experts just don’t understand the things that matter to them. The truth is, we often do understand them – but we can see other options and points of view clearly too.

“Shoulders of giants” is a bloody good metaphor – but needs to be explained a bit more clearly. The view’s pretty good from up here.

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Why I try not to engage in “political” debate on (anti)social media

Posted on March 7, 2015. Filed under: life | Tags: , , , , |

Lots of people posting, lots of belief systems, lots of agendae, lots of complaints – but nobody actually proposing well-considered solutions to any  of the perceived problems. Politics has become as bad as sport or religion, it’s degenerating to tribal belief systems. Mainly because social media gives people a voice, but it’s one that nobody listens to. It’s easy, it’s quick and it has no real impact, except to show which of the groupings you belong to.

I’ve learnt, the hard way, that challenging beliefs, asking questions and trying to engage in reasoned debate is now a sure way to lose friends – so I try not to do it any more.

The same goes for the politicians – I have no time for anyone who says “it’s all their fault”. i don’t care whose fault it is – I want to know what the problem is and what YOU are going to do to make it better. If you won’t tell me those two simple things, I have no interest in the rest of your words.

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I don’t believe in equality

Posted on March 4, 2015. Filed under: life | Tags: , , , |

But I do believe in fairness.

Equality is based on the concept that differences don’t matter or don’t exist. Fairness accepts that differences do exist and should be allowed for and accommodated when they matter.

Just a thought.

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Journeys

Posted on August 12, 2013. Filed under: life, motoring | Tags: , , , , , , |

I spent a lot of time on the road last week, probably more than was good for me, but it led to a small moment of clarity.

On Friday, I was trying to get home from Brighton. That involved, notionally, driving around the M25 and then up the M1 to the north-east of England. There are other routes, but when you’ve committed to meeting someone part-way up the M1, it pretty much locks you into that. (And yes, I know that trying to drive away from London on a Friday is always a bad idea because all those who work there do exactly the same).

As expected, within a few minutes of joining the M25, it was gridlocked. Average speed was about 5 mph, it seemed. I couldn’t do anything except sit in the jam, edging forward little by little, watching my ETA increase until, eventually, after an hour-long delay, the jam magically cleared in front of me and allowed me to get off the M25 onto the M1 and to my meeting.

After the meeting, I rejoined the M1 – to see another jam. Now, I had a choice – I could sit in the jam and hope it cleared, I could get out the maps and plan another route, or I could drive in vaguely the right direction to find another good road north and hope that the SatNav would work out what I was up to.

I chose the third option. I had no need to stick to a planned route any more. I just wanted to get on the move and feel like I was making progress towards my destination.

The revelation – a lot of the time, this is how I run my business. I don’t like to have plans that are too well-formed. I need to keep some flexibility because things change, usually unexpectedly and in interesting ways.

I like to feel like I’m making progress, even if it’s not in the way I had planned. I do start with an outline plan, and I always know what my goals are, but exactly how I achieve them is quite loosely defined. It works for me, but it causes problems too.

Right now, I’m stuck on a couple of projects because I made two mistakes. Firstly, I decided to use a large organisation as a sub-contractor and secondly, I trusted them to deliver their contracts on time.

The organisation is so large, and so beset with a mindset that tells it that all risks can be managed, that it’s got stuck in drawing up the contracts. It simply can’t cope with a situation which is flexible and which requires elements of doubt and uncertainty to be accepted.

Unfortunately for that organisation, I’m preparing to take a different route – I can see a promising little side-road up ahead and it looks interesting.

They say that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Finishing that journey means that you have to keep moving, no matter what obstacles get in your way.

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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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Time to think

Posted on March 29, 2012. Filed under: forensic | Tags: , , , , , , |

I’ve just spent the day at the RSA running a workshop as part of a project I’m engaged on for a major client. The theme was, unsurprisingly, based around digital forensic standards, processes and scenarios.

Lots of good stuff came out of it and there’s been a huge amount of support, but the disappointing thing was the response from just one organisation. Asked to participate in the project by coming to a one-day workshop and letting me visit them to observe their methods, they responded  (paraphrased)  :  “No. Too disruptive, no time, we have too much of a backlog”.

It seems to me that if you spend all your time trying to use your current methods to reduce a backlog of work, and failing, perhaps a bit of disruption and time off might pay dividends in the longer term.

What are your thoughts ?

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Mobile phone hacking – a warning to all

Posted on July 7, 2011. Filed under: security | Tags: , , , , , , , , |

In the UK we are currently undergoing a media frenzy about “mobile phone hacking” – unauthorised access to voicemail. Firstly, the rant – IT’S NOT HACKING! (well technically it is – but it’s not some fancy complicated technical attack requiring specialist knowledge and equipment).

A lot of people are under the impression that mobile phone voicemail is only accessible from the mobile phone itself and some may even believe that messages are stored on the phone. In fact, messages are recorded at the mobile network providers’ data centres and played back over the network when the user dials in to pick them up. It isn’t even necessary to have access to the mobile phone itself to get access to someone’s voicemail account – dialling their number while the phone is off or busy on another call results in call diversion so a message can be left, and this is where the “hack” can start. By pressing the right key sequence during the “please leave a message” welcome message, anyone can get to the menu which allows voicemail to be played back. It’s a feature designed to let users listen to their messages from anywhere in the world, whether their phone is working or not, and is genuinely useful – but it creates a backdoor through which messages can be accessed.

Of course, a PIN is required to gain access to the mailbox but many people leave the default PIN on their account, and these are very well known – most are published on the network providers’ websites or are available in the manuals available with any phone or SIM from the provider. In other cases, PINs can be guessed in the same way as passwords by doing a little bit of background research to find out things like birthdays of relatives, friends or pets, other significant dates or registration numbers of cars. Other methods, like social engineering – where carefully crafted questions and behaviour are used to get the target to reveal their PIN or even just “shoulder surfing” (watching someone enter their PIN while they listen to their messages) can be very successful too.

However the PIN is obtained, once the attacker has it, they have full control of the voicemail system and can listen to and delete messages at will.

For some users this could lead to personal data being disclosed, while for businesses it could be used to discover sensitive material.

If you don’t need voicemail, turn it off. If you do need it – don’t use the default PIN, use a number which isn’t associated with anything that is obviously connected to you – and change it regularly. Avoid obvious PINs like 1111, 1234, 9999 and so on – treat it like the PIN for your bank card, it could have similar value to someone who wants to spy on you. The same rules also apply to the answering machine on your land line – most of them have remote access capabilities so anyone who dials your number could listen to your messages if they can guess the access code.

Get into the habit of checking your voicemail. If you regularly seem to be receiving messages without the network telling you that they’re waiting, it could be an indication that someone else is listening to them. Don’t store sensitive messages on the server for too long either. Delete them as soon as you can.

If you’re going to leave a message for someone – don’t disclose any sensitive material, or better yet send a text message. SMS is far more difficult to intercept without legal authority.

Of course, there is another way to access voicemail – but that does require some technical skill and access to right equipment. It would be unprofessional of me to describe it here though. Suffice to say that OFCOM take an interest in anyone trying to offer the service commercially.

n-gate ltd.

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Twits in court

Posted on March 28, 2011. Filed under: forensic | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , |

Here’s an interesting one – a friend of mine was giving evidence in crown court today and has just sent a text message to say that a journalist mentioned their name on Twitter.

Not so surprising ? Their name will probably appear in the press reports in tomorrow’s paper anyway. Well, yes – except for one thing. The tweeting was happening in real time. As the witnesses were being cross-examined a journalist was relaying highlights directly from the courtroom.

Now – I can’t help but wonder what effect this could have on the testimony of a witness who has yet to be called and who is being kept away from the court in a witness room. Usual practice calls for witnesses to give their evidence without hearing anyone else’s to ensure that they have not been influenced by anything that has happened in the court (with the exception of “experts” who have been granted the privilege of sitting in court to advise counsel).

Mobile data networks and blogging sites, of course, can completely destroy this isolation – witnesses can be sitting in the witness room receiving selected detail of the evidence as it is presented, possibly very carefully filtered by someone who really wants to influence them.

In this case, I don’t think that’s what happened – it’s just yet another instance of someone using a technology without thinking through the consequences.

Perhaps it’s time to revisit the issue of technology in court – cameras have been banned almost since they were invented – perhaps we need a blanket ban on everything which can communicate with the outside world, in the interests of impartiality and fairness for all ? Perhaps news, just like travel and food, would be better for being a little slower ?

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Writing for a living ?

Posted on February 2, 2010. Filed under: forensic, life | Tags: , , , , , , |

Well, it seems that at least two editors have been fooled into thinking I can write things that are either interesting or controversial. They might even pay me (a little) to do it.

Keep an eye on them :

* Digital Forensics Magazine (DFM) for my IRQ column (http://www.digitalforensicsmagazine.com/). This issue is about triage and whether or not it has a role in digital forensics.

* The Investigator Magazine for my series (Tech. Note) on how technology is involved in crime (http://www.the-investigator.co.uk/).

It’s an interesting experience being paid to have opinions – something which was actively discouraged in a former life 😉

The main topic for this week, apart from devising fiendish exam questions for my students at Ulster, has been preparing a presentation for the Forensic Science Regulator’s conference next week. I’ve been asked to speak some more about the issues related to software validation. Interestingly, there’s another session on method validation. Given that software, by its very nature, has to embody method, I think I may overlap a lot. However, the results from the workshop I arranged back in December will fit into this nicely and should provoke some discussion.

Here’s hoping that from the arguing we can reach a consensus about the way forward – ideally one that will work!

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A quiet week – but new material on the book website

Posted on October 27, 2009. Filed under: 1 | Tags: , , , , , |

A fit of conscience overtook me today – having spent the last couple of weeks working on a contract with the University of Ulster (I’m helping to rewrite their distance learning module on Forensic Science and Crime Scene Science) and negotiating my Visiting Academic title, I suddenly remembered that I’ve been neglecting the book website. A new set of exercises for Chapter 3 is, therefore, online. (See http://www.digital-forensics.org.uk/ for more)

Meanwhile – life as an independent is getting interesting. Planning of training courses has moved on and it looks like November will see the start of the first one (on seizure and handling). Calls about the regulator’s proposals are also arriving and my concerns about how to demonstrate “fitness for purpose” no longer seem to be unique to me. There are ways of doing this, but it will required the industry as a whole to get behind the project and agree the mechanisms properly.

And finally – something I can’t talk about – but it’s an interesting one. When this “secret squirrel” job is over, I might hint at some of the details.

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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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