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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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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Juries vs. the Internet – time for a change ?

Posted on June 13, 2011. Filed under: forensic | Tags: , , , , , , , |

This story caught my eye this morning : http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/facebook/8571855/Juror-in-Facebook-contempt-prosecution-after-contacting-defendant-during-trial.html

It highlights one of the problems we have with jury trials in the age of pervasive technology. It is only natural for someone involved in deciding the fate of another to want to obtain as much information as possible so that they can be sure they’ve made the right decision. No matter how often a judge reminds a jury not to discuss the case and not to attempt to carry out their own research or to make contact with anyone else involved in the case, the temptation to “break the rules” must be almost overwhelming.

This is particularly true when complicated scientific or business evidence is involved. Much of it can be so obscure to the uninitiated that they feel they cannot hope to understand it without help, but that help is not provided to them, so they go off and do their own research – using untested, unapproved and unvalidated sources. Either that, or they believe what they’ve seen in the mass-media and we get the results of the dreaded “CSI effect” creeping in.

Perhaps its time we revised the jury system – not to abolish them, and not to have expert jurors only, but to give them access to court-approved sources of information in the jury room. Independent advisors, completely isolated from the trial materials, who can speak on the underlying principles of the technical evidence, seeking permission from the court before commenting and keeping rigorous notes of everything they discuss so that all parties can be fully aware of the issues being raised by the jury. Of course, jurors might need to be kept in isolation to prevent them seeking the extra information anyway, but perhaps having a source “on tap” in the jury room could help speed up their deliberations by giving them confidence that they know the whole story.

Of course, it might lead to longer trials, but that could be a price worth paying if we  can eliminate uncertainty and reticence to make a decision introduced by jurors who feel they need more information or worse, hurried decisions made by those who already think they know it all.

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ISO ISO baby – part 2

Posted on April 20, 2011. Filed under: forensic, security | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , |

Well, I’m just about back on BST after spending last week in Singapore. In the words of Robin Williams – “IT’S HOT!” out there, and sticky, but the locals are very friendly, the food is excellent (Kopi & Kaya Toast highly recommended for breakfast).

Of course, I wasn’t just out there for a “jolly” (but thanks for dinner Microsoft – I promise to say nice things about you for a few hours at least), but was attending the latest meeting of ISO/IEC JTC1 SC27 working groups. This is the “Information Technology – Security Techniques” sub-committee responsible for the infamous 270xx family of standards.

My main responsibility was to assist with the ongoing task of editing the 27037 “Guidelines for the identification, collection, acquisition and preservation of digital evidence” document. It’s coming along nicely, but we still have considerable debate about whether this is a standard for law-enforcement, Infosec. or both.

My own view is that, because of the nature of the committee responsible, it needs to be an Infosec. document which can be useful for everyone – including law enforcement. This approach to it seems to be paying off as some of the resistance to it is falling away.

The problem with treating it as a document for law-enforcement is that any international standard in this area is bound to come into conflict with local law, local procedure etc. (you’ll see the truth of that when you read the final version and see how often we have had to include a reminder about local legislation  etc. overriding the guidance). Worse still is the possibility that an ISO document might try to tell judges how to deal with evidence & matters of law.

We can do no more than issue some helpful information and try to set a minimum standard which will allow anyone involved in investigating digital incidents to have confidence that any organisation, working to the same standard, will use methods which are compatible. In that respect, ISO/IEC 27037 looks like it’s going to work. Ideally, of course, everyone will adopt is as a minimum standard – and that can only be good news, because there will better understanding of the issues surrounding digital evidence handling and fewer situations where examiners, like me, have to turn down cases because of problems in the early stages.

I just hope we can achieve the same with the three new projects that we’re hoping to launch in October – “Investigation Principles & Process”, “Guidelines for Analysis & Interpretation of Digital Evidence”, and “Guidance on assuring suitability and adequacy of investigation methods”.  We (the UK group) are also hopeful that our proposal for some new work on “Incident Readiness” (particularly investigate readiness) will also be launched in October.

If you have any suggestions for what should be included in those standards, please do let me know. These things are just written by “the great and the good” (proof : they let me play!) but are the result of debate, discussion and consensus. More ideas  = better results.

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PhDs

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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    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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