Transforming forensic services with digital innovation

Over the past two decades, we have seen a meteoric rise in the volume of digital evidence created in police investigations and, subsequently, judicial proceedings. This growth accelerated in the last year as the world turned online in response to COVID-19. The increase in devices, the growing number of digital apps and the sheer amount of data has placed enormous pressure on police agencies and their digital forensics labs. At Microsoft, we are committed to working with our partners to fuel innovative solutions that empower agencies to uncover new capabilities, efficiencies and cost savings.

Recently, I had the opportunity to join the Public Sector Network for a virtual partner session on Modernizing Forensic Services that featured remarks from Jeff Adam, Ret. Assistant Commissioner, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and Neil Desai, Vice President, Magnet Forensics. They provided insights on the evolving public safety landscape and the need for collaboration across the public and private sectors to solve these substantial challenges.

With experience spanning decades, Adam recognizes that the status quo is no longer sustainable. The sheer volume of digital evidence that’s pertinent to law enforcement and private security concerns has started to feel like a tsunami of information. This, combined with the increasing pressure for timeliness in prosecutions, the increasing demand on limited, highly specialized resources and the additional scrutiny on techniques and Charter compliance, has created a critical need for change.

We are working alongside our partners, like Magnet Forensics, to support the digital transformation that will help empower this change. Based in Waterloo, Ontario, Magnet Forensics is re-imagining digital investigations for the modern era with an integrated approach that maximizes people, processes and technology.

Modernizing and Transforming Forensics

“The first piece of tackling this challenge is distributing the workload. We have a generation of people coming into policing who are digital natives,” said Desai. In the current model, digital forensics labs are being overwhelmed by an increasing number of investigations that contain a digital element. This is leading to backlogs and delays to investigations. As a result, many digital forensics labs limit what types of cases in which they can accept evidence to be reviewed. Desai said there is a need for a paradigm shift that would better leverage technologies like the cloud, automation, AI and mobility to ensure all investigations with digital evidence can be addressed in a timely and effective fashion.

Police agencies can begin setting that change in motion by looking at simple tools that enable front-line officers to make interventions and capture digital evidence in the field.

“This is a challenge we’ve been working on for a number of years with agencies in Canada and around the world,” said Desai. “I’m pleased to say we developed a solution called Magnet SHIELD that enables all officers to capture digital evidence in the field.”

Deployed on any Windows-based tablet or laptop, such as a Microsoft Surface, Magnet SHIELD enables users to collect photo, video and chat evidence from a mobile phone or memory card. Instead of having to seize devices and send them to digital forensics labs, front-line officers can use Magnet SHIELD to allow consenting witnesses and victims to share only the most pertinent content from their devices at the scene of a crime. Magnet SHIELD helps preserve fleeting evidence, build trust with witnesses by allowing them to protect their own privacy and reduce backlogs in digital forensics labs.  Magnet Forensics has made Magnet SHIELD software free to police agencies globally.

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Leveraging Automation

Addressing evidence from consenting witnesses and victims on the front-line will not solely address the backlogs digital forensics labs are facing.  The amount of data and the number of devices they handle grows exponentially every year. Instead of spending most of their time using their extensive expertise to help solve complex cases, digital forensic examiners are often inundated with tasks such as processing evidence and transferring it to external hard drives for review. This leaves their hardware sitting idle.

For Desai, an important next step is creating automated processes that leverage hardware 24-7-365 to develop initial reports that investigators can take a topline look at and share with their stakeholders, both internally in their agencies and across the justice sector.  That’s why Magnet Forensics has developed Magnet AUTOMATE.

“In terms of automation, ideally for rudimentary cases we’re seeing every day that involve the same data and device types, we can start churning through those and getting the outputs in the hands of the investigating officers faster,” Desai said. “This frees up digital forensic specialists to work on the toughest technical challenges and help supporting investigators understand nuances in the critical evidence to their cases.”

The right digital tools can help agencies accomplish goals such as uncovering crime trends, improving response times and developing stronger community relationships. Technology can also play a critical role in reconstructing events, which is time consuming and has the potential to miss key information. Highly integrated data systems can significantly reduce this effort and help investigators find evidence buried across different devices and storage media. Using machine learning and AI, digital forensic examiners can then draw on reliable and secure correlations to provide leads and dramatically reduce discovery time for digital evidence.

At Microsoft, we are committed to responsible AI solutions that reflect ethical principles that put people first. By using AI to optimize administrative functions and services, officers are able to focus on what matters most: human-centered decision-making and empathy. In public safety and justice agencies, decision makers should consider not just what AI can do, but what it should do to innovate in a reliable and trusted way. It’s critical to understand the components of a holistic approach to AI that will help these agencies turn meaningful innovation into actionable results for their communities.

Empowering Collaboration

Public safety and justice agencies are beginning to align to an innovative digital approach that ensures sustainability now and in the future. Magnet Forensics’ vision for managing digital evidence fuels collaboration at all levels. It starts with enabling first responders to capture investigative data on-scene, then supporting digital forensic examiners using automation and AI to industrialize evidence processing; and finally, sharing the evidence with non-technical investigators, as well as broader stakeholders in the justice sector, such as Crown prosecutors and defense attorneys.

With Magnet REVIEW, Magnet Forensics is creating a more efficient, secure and collaborative digital evidence review process. Powered by Microsoft Azure, Magnet REVIEW allows digital forensic examiners to share evidence such as images and chat logs with non-technical investigators in an easy-to-use interface through a web browser. Using the platform, non-technical investigators can continue their investigators remotely, quickly access digital evidence with searches by keyword or date and leave notes to help guide digital forensic examiners through the next steps of the investigation. Magnet REVIEW helps police agencies complete data analysis at a quicker pace and take on more cases, build public trust by returning devices at a quicker rate and ensure that digital evidence is safe due to the increased security and auditability that Magnet REVIEW provides when deployed in the cloud.

At Microsoft, we work closely with our network of partners to understand the needs of public safety and justice agencies and help them utilize the power of our innovative technologies to achieve more for the communities and people they serve. With flexible, integrated and trustworthy solutions, we are dedicated to accelerating digital transformation across these organizations — for more information, I encourage you to read our e-book Future of Public Safety and Justice | Microsoft.