Detective work gone digital

Screen time: In an ever increasingly technological world, children are exposed to more online dangers and cyber-bullying
Screen time: In an ever increasingly technological world, children are exposed to more online dangers and cyber-bullying
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In the latest in our series going behind the scenes at Lancashire Police’s online child abuse investigation unit, PAUL BERENTZEN spends time with the IT specialists working around the clock to keep our children safe.

Thousands of pounds of technology - from the latest phones to computers so old they are almost obsolete - take up most of the room.

Examining the evidence: A highly skilled police technician sets to work fighting against online crime

Examining the evidence: A highly skilled police technician sets to work fighting against online crime

It is here that specially trained IT experts examine evidence seized by police in the fight against online crime.

From an office that looks more like a second hand computer shop than a police station, they are a key part of the fight to keep Lancashire safe from dangerous criminals.

Lancashire Police’s digital technicians need cutting edge knowledge to stay ahead of the curve as criminals find new ways to stay one step ahead of the law.

For many people, the arrival of the newest smartphone is something to look forward to - but keeping up with the latest technology can make clamping down on online crime a difficult task.

We still get laptops and we still get towers (desktop computers) but now we are getting more and more tablets

“We get everything from phones and tablets to huge computers,” said Nigel, a technician tasked with turning the seized equipment into evidence detectives can use.

“We still get laptops and we still get towers (desktop computers) but now we are getting more and more tablets.

“We had a floppy disc come through the other day.”

It means the team has to have the skills and technology to examine any device that comes through their doors.

But while some jobs simply involve making a forensic copy of a standard personal laptop, others can be far more demanding.

“You can get it where there’s no protection or encryption,” he added.

“But some people have encrypted it so much that we are at a loss as to how to decrypt it.

“People have been sentenced for failing to disclose the decryption key.

“It’s not like in television shows where it’s done at the click of a button.”

When police seize a phone or a computer they think might hold vital evidence, they send it to Nigel and his colleagues.

They will then make a digital forensic copy of the machine using industry standard software before scouring it for clues.

And they are constantly learning.

Every new device that appears in the shops means a new pieces of hardware that the experts have to read up on in case they find them on their desk the next morning.

But the good guys have technology on their side too, as they tackle some of the most dangerous criminals out there.

They are a key part of the fight against online child abuse, helping to track down the people putting Lancashire’s youngsters at risk.

Yesterday’s LEP highlighted the work of Lancashire Police’s Online Child Abuse Investigation Team (OCAIT).

When their investigators find devices used to store indecent images of children, Nigel and his team can use a state of the art national database to check for images of abuse. The Child Abuse Investigation Database (CAID) was launched by the Prime Minister in December and has already catalogued tens of millions of photographs of abuse.

Now police can use it to quickly identify if a computer has been used to store illegal pictures. Any new images they find can then be uploaded to the database to help future investigations.

For Det Chief Supt Ian Critchley, the force’s head of crime, it is an example of how police are adapting to the ever-changing nature of crime and the demand that puts on his officers.

He said: “The pace of technology has advanced so quickly that we now see ever younger people with smartphones and tablets.

“The way crime is committed has changed.

“To keep up we have had to look at how we pro-actively police the internet.

“The sheer number of devices out there has also created additional pressure.”

But police see the increased workload as a positive - it means fewer cases are going unreported.

So far this year, the force’s South division, which covers Preston, South Ribble, Chorley and Skelmersdale, has accounted for more than its fair hare of OCAIT’s investigations.

The team’s 114 arrests so far this year has almost matched last year’s total and is rising daily.

The trick, according to Det Chief Cupt Critchley is to continue building confidence among the public to come forward and report abuse wherever and whenever it happens.

He added: “I still think there are, unfortunately, many people within our communities who will have been abused but have not yet sought help.

“I want to send out a clear message to them that there is help out there.

“There is a service to help them come to terms with what they have gone through and help them move forward with their lives.”

If you or someone you know has been affected by abuse, you can contact police on 101.

Alternatively, a new 24-hour anonymous hotline for young people dealing with issues around child sexual exploitation has been set up. Call or text 116 000.