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Fighting crime in a digital world

mysterious man in hoodie on his computer and phone

Dr Michael Wilson, Lecturer in Criminology at Murdoch University is leading research to increase the confidence levels of police officers and their ability to investigate cybercrime.

With the increased sophistication of digital platforms, cybercrime is becoming more complex to understand and investigate. There is a growing need to better equip our police force with the knowledge and skills to investigate and fight online crime as it evolves.

With expertise in computer crime, digital forensics and criminal justice theory, Dr Wilson has already contributed significant research into the regulation of cryptography, surveillance law, and the admissibility of digital evidence.

He and his team of colleagues surveyed over 400 police officers from Queensland and New South Wales, measuring their individual and institutional capabilities to investigate cybercrimes.

This included basic digital forensic skills such as the ability to preserve data stored on media to ensure no objections to the admissibility of digital evidence.

The survey identified that general duty police officers generally felt unprepared to deal with cybercrime offences, however they also desired additional training and increased resources for cybercrime specialists. 

“Our results found that cybercrime specialists weren’t equipped with adequate resources and that there were not enough personnel with cybercrime training to help them access the evidence necessary to write their investigation reports,” he said.

“These were significant findings considering the focus on cybercrime and security at both the state and federal level over the last three to four years.”

Is WA behind the curve?

Dr Wilson explained federal agencies have tried to hire more cybercrime and cyber security personnel and are putting more emphasis and funding on high tech cybercrime units.

“Queensland and New South Wales have had long established cybercrime units that are well regarded internationally,” he said.

“However Western Australia has trailed behind due to the lack of organisational infrastructure, meaning general duty officers have had to take on the brunt of cybercrime investigations.”

Dr Wilson hopes his research will help to clarify the requirements for admissibility of digital evidence in Western Australia.

“Currently, there is limited precedent in Western Australia for what is and isn’t admissible,” he explained.

There are a lot of pre-built digital forensic tools that can be used to analyse the contents of mobile phones, however phones are replaced and updated so regularly, so they become outdated quickly.
“Without a reliable and reproducible analysis of the contents stored on the devices breeds significant implications for admissibility of digital evidence in the courts.”

Dr Wilson added this significant knowledge gap has created opportunities for those involved in cybercrime to mount a defence to the state’s case, on the basis that the current process from law enforcement is not adequate to acquire digital evidence suitably.

“The common objections for admissibility of digital evidence is whether or not the forensic process used to acquire the contents is forensically reliable and reproducible to present in court.”

Future-proofing our police force

Cybercrime is a growing area and not many professionals in law enforcement have the knowledge and ability to investigate cybercrime.

“Part of the reason I teach cybercrime at Murdoch University is to help students interested in working within law enforcement, walk away with a basic level of knowledge around cybercrime and digital forensics because they don’t get that in the police academy,” Dr Wilson said.

“Although, it is increasingly clear that it’s the future of policing.

“The distinction between offline and online crime is blurring. The fact that general duties police officers haven’t caught up to that is causing a lack of confidence and will have flow on affects in the future.”

The criminology expert strongly believes having a basic understanding of cybercrime is necessary for general duty officers, who are often the first responders to an incident.

“Like an offline crime scene, if you mess with devices at a digital crime scene, it can affect the stored data and disrupt the chain of custody, which again impacts the admissibility of digital evidence,” he said.

“Officers need to be equipped with the basic skills necessary so they don’t impede the prosecution of cyber criminals and so they can refer complaints to the appropriate reporting authorities.”

Dr Wilson teaches cyber crime units in the Master of Criminology, giving students an understanding of cyber crime offences, digital crime scene management, digital surveillance, and criminal misuses of cryptography.

The Master of Criminology course at Murdoch University is the only course of its kind offered in Western Australia.

Interested in a career fighting digital crime? Find out more about our Master of Criminology course.
Posted on:

28 May 2021

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