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Project Odyssey: a breakthrough in sexual abuse evidence gathering

Supt Paul Keasey, Head of Specialist Operations with Gloucestershire Constabulary explains how a breakthrough in digital forensics is being put to the test

The ability to communicate through What’s App, text, Facebook and all other available platforms has almost made speaking redundant. And with potentially as much storage as those room-size computers that once fired rockets to the moon, the mobile phone has become an essential archive for everyday life.  

Yet, for victims of domestic and sexual abuse, required to submit their most personal records for scrutiny for an unlimited period while investigators comb through their life in words and pictures - with nothing off limits - it can be a huge invasion of privacy.

The former Victims’ Commissioner Dame Vera Baird QC described it as the equivalent of a “digital strip search”. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) called on the police and criminal justice partners to stop collecting “excessive” and unnecessary amounts of personal information from victims, with recommendations around proportionality and the length of time that information is retained.

The need to adapt and change the way digital opportunities are managed is long overdue. To produce a solution to this ongoing problem, Gloucestershire Constabulary has been piloting a new technology code-named Project Odyssey.

The newly developed Odyssey devices, which are currently being trialled by selected forces, enable specially trained officers and forensic experts to extract evidence of crime from a wide range of applications within a set period of time. The process is called ‘time slicing’ and enables investigators to search a device for relevant information within a specific window, ensuring that nothing outside the investigation is captured. Odyssey devices can extract data from Smart devices, USB’s, memory cards, dash cams, Apple and Android operating systems and can be tailored to the majority of incidents requiring a law enforcement response. 

The mining of data in this way is a recognised forensic process, but also enables further examination via laboratories should the needs of the investigation dictate. It contrasts with the current method of choice, which involves seizing and submitting all relevant digital devices for an unlimited period of time. With very few forces able to cope with demand, this has led to a backlog in the back-office and an inevitable impact on service delivery costing both time and money. In the face of this, Gloucestershire Constabulary set out to address these fundamental issues; to provide a proportionate response to an investigation that can be delivered in real time.

During the last 20 years, the world has seen an explosion of available digital data

The project sought to define and refine a streamlined workflow for current and future digital challenges. Working closely with the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) and the digital forensic team, we can forge a platform capable of replication across UK law enforcement. Reducing digital device interrogation turn around to minutes, with all levels of examination capable of completion by any front-line investigator.

Odyssey means that relevant data can now be targeted and submitted to the CPS at the earliest opportunity. This has resulted in a streamlined judicial process at the first point of contact, which has added significant value to the early stages of the investigation. It will benefit timeliness within the statute of limitation and potentially eradicates the digital forensic backlog issues law enforcement faces nationally,

During the last 20 years, the world has seen an explosion of available digital data while the ability of digital forensics to support investigators has become a well-known formula of demand outstripping capability. In order to address this increase, policing has traditionally looked to re-prioritise submissions, re-task resources, create static hubs or kiosks, or outsource to 3rd party laboratories. These responses have proven to be costly, complex, time consuming or just simply haven’t worked in the proportionate and compassionate manner expected.

In an age where victims and witnesses rely heavily on their mobile devices, it is becoming increasingly unlikely they will give them up willingly to the police for extended periods of time - nor allow their entire contents to be poured over by the justice system. We should not be surprised when the ICO reports that excessive data is extracted and processed with little or no justification. It makes recommendations about complex issues of data retention, all of which places a significant burden on the criminal justice system whilst causing concern and anxiety to witnesses and victims.

Evidence gathering at the scene has historically required trained, skilled operators, with very few organisations able to meet the time and cost demands this requires. Victims, witnesses, the public and law enforcement officers are demanding a device that can extract proportionate, targeted data at the crime scene, that will improve both the service to victims and investigative outcomes.

To achieve this, and with the help of our partners, we looked to create additional functionality through bespoke hardware and software that would help identify new opportunities for digital investigation; establishing the most efficient means for interrogating victims’ and witnesses devices; making sure all the devices in use during the relevant timescale are located and that none are overlooked.

It is no longer necessary to keep the victim’s phone, which beforeOdyssey, would have left them without their lifeline to call for help

Developing the use of search tools, analysing content and a clearer assessment of its relevance were among our primary aims, along with a more joined-up approach between the police and CPS towards sensitive material. Allowing best practice to be cascaded from serious crime down to volume crime cases and the electronic provision of digital material to defence lawyers.

The hardware developed for Odyssey does have sufficient internal storage and additional network capabilities from the scene if required, while training for our 18 digital review officers deployed so far, has been in line with NPCC guidelines around electronic based data. This has resulted in more efficient and effective operational delivery, leading to enhanced criminal justice outcomes and a more sensitive service to victims and witnesses of crime. Key to this is that devices can remain with their owner and that private lives remain just that as only relevant, targeted data is extracted.

Perhaps the most pertinent benefit is that during a high-risk domestic violence  investigation, it is no longer necessary to retain the victim’s phone, which could be their only lifeline for help should the need arise. Odyssey also means that extracted data can now be limited to only that which is evidentially relevant to the investigation, with the knock-on effect that the victim need not feel violated by a system that is there to support them.

As a consequence of improving the response to the initial investigation, the post-charge criminal justice process will be better equipped to deliver more positive outcomes for all, and a greater ability to deal more effectively with perpetrators. Victims are safeguarded, the risk of re-offending is reduced and Law Enforcement resources can be allocated more effectively producing significantly measurable medium and long-term benefits.

Put simply, in an operational sense, Project Odyssey is saving law enforcement time, money and resources, while improving criminal justice outcomes by sharing skills and creating new capabilities. It enables front line officers to make informed decisions regarding future inquiries at the earliest opportunity. It means the time it takes to interrogate digital devices is reduced potentially from months to minutes with all levels of examination capable of completion by any front-line investigator

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