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Digital forensics and social media: challenges and opportunities

A new research project will explore the use of 'digital forensics' in criminal cases, focusing on social media and messaging communications between suspects, victims, and witnesses of crimes.

Digital forensics and social media: challenges and opportunities

Date - 10th November 2020
By - Kari Davies and Tiggey May

Birkbeck’s Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research (ICPR), in collaboration with the Institute for Global City Policing at UCL, and Perpetuity Research, is examining the challenges and opportunities faced by criminal justice professionals when investigating and prosecuting cases involving digital forensics.

The project launched a survey on 9th November, in which police officers and civilian investigators, Crown Prosecution staff, and criminal lawyers are invited to take part.

The project, funded by the Dawes Trust (an independent charitable organisation), is examining how evidence derived from posts on social media platforms and communications on messaging applications, is collected, analysed, and prepared for court in the investigation and prosecution of criminal offences. The study has a particular focus on serious violent and sexual offences.

Almost any crime committed today gives rise to evidence in digital forms. Such evidence frequently includes communications using a wide array of social media platforms and messaging applications – between or among suspects, witnesses, and victims. The nature, volume, and complexity of social media evidence poses multiple challenges, but also new opportunities for the investigative and prosecution process. These challenges and opportunities are being explored through this research by:

  • A policy and procedure review of the legal, procedural, and regulatory frameworks which govern the handling of social media evidence in the investigation and prosecution of offline violent and sexual offending;
  • A survey looking at criminal justice practitioners’ broader use of social media material throughout the investigative and prosecution process in all criminal offences;
  • Case studies of investigations of serious violent and sexual offences, involving: a documentation review and interviews with criminal justice practitioners;
  • Exploration of the scope for use of sentiment analysis and natural language processing in the analysis of social media evidence and meta-data collected in criminal investigations.

All of this work is being conducted in consultation with a steering group of criminal justice investigators and prosecutors and legal and data experts.

The survey is available now until the 22 January. It aims to capture the ways in which criminal justice professionals extract, analyse, and present social media evidence at court, and how they negotiate and understand each aspect of the process. The survey will identify any barriers highlighted by respondents to help inform the criminal justice system of any needs and gaps in current training and policy. The survey encompasses the investigation and prosecution of offences of all kinds, excluding summary only offences.

We want to hear from anyone currently employed as a police officer, law enforcement employee, or digital forensic expert, as well as anyone working as a criminal lawyer, including solicitor advocates, solicitors, and barristers. The survey itself will take no more than 10 minutes to complete, and the results will feed directly into the professions whose staff have taken part. Whilst we have the support and input from criminal justice agencies, this survey is being conducted completely independently from all criminal justice organisations. All respondents take part anonymously and all responses are recorded anonymously.

If you are interested, and would like to find out more and participate, please use the following links:

For police and law enforcement professionals:    

For criminal lawyers:                                                 

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