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Digital Forensics and Social Media: ethics, 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.

A collaborative research group led by Birkbeck’s Institute for Criminal Policy Research (ICPR) is launching an important new project to better understand the challenges and opportunities associated with ‘digital forensics’. The project will look in particular at evidence derived from posts on social media platforms and communications on messaging applications, and at how such evidence is used in the investigation and prosecution of offline, interpersonal offences.

Digital evidence has been crucial to the development of criminal investigations around the world. In the UK, charges of rape against 22-year-old Liam Allan were dropped after messages from the alleged victim pestering him for “casual sex” and outlining “rape fantasies” were uncovered; while in the US, 40-year-old Richard Dabate was found guilty of murdering his wife after data from her FitBit activity tracker showed her heart rate had stopped earlier than in the timeline of events Dabate had given to the police.

However, the use of digital forensics and social media evidence remains controversial. For example, police demands for access to the mobile phones of those reporting have been criticised as overly intrusive by the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales.

Dr Jessica Jacobson, Director of ICPR, said:

"Almost any crime that is committed today gives rise to evidence in digital forms, including evidence from social media and messaging communications. The nature, volume and complexity of ‘social media evidence’ pose multiple challenges but also new opportunities for the investigative and prosecution process.

"This research project will explore these challenges and opportunities, by combining a review of policy and procedure with examination of how, in practice, social media evidence has been used in the investigation and prosecution of serious sexual and violent offences.  The project aims to produce greater understanding of how best to manage social media evidence and thereby to support fairer and more effective law enforcement."

Funded by the Dawes Trust, the research project will address complex legal and ethical questions about the use of digital forensics and social media evidence, including:

  • What are the technical processes by which social media and messaging content are obtained and preserved for criminal investigations?
  • How adequate is the existing legal, procedural and regulatory framework governing access, seizure, admissibility and presentation of social media evidence?
  • What are the key challenges associated with review, analysis and disclosure of digital communications – including determination of ‘all reasonable lines of inquiry’ where there is a vast quantity of material?
  • What are the implications of the use of social media evidence for the privacy of suspects, victims and witnesses?
  • How can social media evidence best be presented in court?

The research will be conducted by a partnership comprising ICPR, the Birkbeck Institute for Data Analytics, the Jill Dando Institute of Security and Crime Science at UCL, and Perpetuity Research, a consultancy specialising in security, risk and crime prevention.

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