What does the future of digital investigation look like?

4 January 2023

The number of connected global devices could triple from 9.7 billion in 2020 to more than 29 billion in 2030. Creating more opportunities for crime, a greater requirement to secure digital evidence and an urgent need for law enforcement to adapt to the new industry trends that are transforming how online investigations are being conducted.

We take a closer look at how advancements in technology are impacting the way investigators work. And what this could mean for the industry’s future.


The future of digital investigation – challenges and opportunities

Advances in technology are making criminal investigations more complex. Consider the process of evaluating a mobile phone report. Gone are the days of one-pagers. It’s common to see reports that are over five hundred pages long. Featuring not only message logs but also email addresses, username logs, browsing history … the list goes on.

The investigator has to identify what can be used as evidence. And also what information could undermine the case’s attribution. It’s technical, time-consuming work, connecting all the dots to produce an accurate forensic image for digital evidence.

This is one example of how technology is forcing investigators to adapt and change their methods. It’s opening up new opportunities to source digital evidence, facilitating more robust and thorough investigations. But it’s also creating unique challenges for law enforcement. The three key technology trends impacting the industry demonstrate this further.


Trend 1: Social media

Over four billion people were using social media worldwide in 2021. This could rise to six billion in 2027. Resulting in more intelligence which investigators can use to support criminal investigations.

But misinformation will also increase and become harder to verify. Even now, fake news has never been so convincing or difficult to spot. Verification methods, such as a check on Google Street View that helps you inspect location credibility, will become invaluable for thorough online investigations.


Trend 2: Vehicle telematics 

From GPS locations and call logs to the moment a car door was opened and at what time, vehicles are becoming a goldmine for evidence thanks to sophisticated telematics. With new, valuable data to interrogate, telematics are generating more lines of enquiry which will increase if there’s a wider adoption of technologically-advanced electric vehicles (EVs).

Making the most of this more nuanced vehicle data is difficult. Law enforcement will need digital investigators with the right skills and experience to carry out the intensive work involved in providing rigorous evidence from vehicles of interest.


Trend 3: OSINT and SOCMINT 

Data sources are rapidly rising as more people increase and diversify their use of technology. As a result, online investigation is growing in the form of open-source intelligence (OSINT) and social media intelligence (SOCMINT) methods.

As technology advances, so will people’s education and awareness of how to protect themselves online. This is great for their security but a big obstacle for law enforcement. Having skilled investigators on the team could counteract these challenges. They use outside-the-box thinking to overcome technology like virtual private networks (VPNs) and material on the dark net when searching for online evidence in a criminal investigation.


Filling the gap between digital forensics and investigations

An investigator needs to be able to interrogate all the data sources — vehicle data, cell site data, social media data — and piece everything together. Using a combination of digital tools and manual investigation techniques to verify evidence that can be attributed to a crime.

In law enforcement, Digital Media Investigators (DMIs) have this capability. But they’re few and far between. The task often falls on a detective constable who, in most circumstances, doesn’t have enough digital experience to properly evaluate the data or combine multiple sources held by different intelligence departments.

Digital investigations will only become more challenging as technology continues to advance. Upskilling traditional investigators so they can understand and interpret different forms of digital data is one solution. An increase in DMIs might also help fill the gap between digital forensics and investigations. Alternatively, to conduct robust online investigations, law enforcers could rely on an external Digital Investigation Unit — a team of highly experienced DIs trained in the disciplines and online platforms used across digital investigations.


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