Digital front in fight against crime

By Jo Perry
BBC Scotland news website


There are few areas in our society that the technological revolution has not touched.

Image caption,
Officers seize digital media to track down criminals

The prevalence of digital technology has changed everything from the way we access information to how we communicate and structure our day.

But the technology has also impacted upon other aspects of life that only now are being fully appreciated.

One such area is the police and criminality.

Increasingly, forces are staffed by officers whose true specialisms lie in data analysis and computer processing.

Forces across the UK are focussing more on so-called e-crime and dedicating increasing resources to catching those who have exploited the seeming anonymity of the internet.

Among them is Central Scotland Police.

The force made headlines in 2009 after its Operation Defender netted more than 200 online predators and identified 150 child victims of abuse.

The case was prompted by the disappearance of a 14-year-old girl.

When police analysed date from her computer they found that she had been groomed by a significant number of men, many of whom had carried out serious sexual offences against her.

Central Scotland Police has a dedicated e-crimes task force within its special investigations and public protection unit.

There, forensic analysts and investigators work on detecting criminal activity not by traditional methods but through analysing digital hardware.

Head of the unit Det Sgt Dougie Howie is frank about the challenge of his task.

He said: "Every crime that's committed now has an element of e-crime involved in it.

"It may be that criminals use a computer as a research tool for a bank robbery or to communicate with others.

"Whether it's terrorism, fraud or child abuse, more and more we are seeing it."

Social networking

His team will seize any digital device, including Playstations, mobile phones, SIM cards, DVDs and computers during the course of their investigations.

He said: "It is a challenge when you consider the storage capacity of a computer. It can take a very long time and it is a huge undertaking to get information."

In his years as a police officer, Det Sgt Howie said there had been a change in the culture of policing where traditional geographical boundaries no longer apply.

Image caption,
Police targeted networking sites like Facebook and Bebo

"You can have a crime of indecency committed in Germany but when police there examine computers there might be images of children from Scotland or anywhere," he explained.

Det Sgt Howie said that up 80% of his unit's time can be spent on investigations involving indecent images of children.

However, it is not just child abuse the force focuses on. In 2008, they launched Operation Pincer.

During the operation officers questioned more than 180 children about their activities on social networking sites including Bebo and Facebook.

The force also visited the homes of 182 youngsters to talk to them and their parents about issues involving assault, drug dealing and alcohol abuse.

For Det Sgt Howie, the internet is a place where crime is prevalent.

He said: "If Facebook was a community it would be the third largest country in the world, now that is something to think about."

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