The Increasing Digitization of Investigations

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“Every aspect of the investigative process has been impacted by digitization in some way.”Dr. Joshua Adams, Professor of Practice, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University

As society has gotten more digital and high-tech, so have investigations. Digital forensics is an increasingly crucial aspect of evidence collection and analysis. Today, evidence exists in bits and bytes that can trace back to before the commission of any particular crime.

Investigators today need to be fluent in the way criminals think and operate. The declining use of cash has led to more traceable financial transactions if the investigator knows where to look. Remote and hybrid work setups have increased the number of channels available to fraudsters and the number of records of interactions between coworkers. As AI and VR enter the mainstream, investigators and forensics professionals must keep pace with modern investigations’ high-tech, multi-domain nature.

The digitization of investigations has been nothing short of revolutionary, but the human element remains. To learn more about the digitization of investigations, and what it means for forensics professionals and investigators, read on.

Meet the Expert: Joshua L. Adams, PhD

Joshua Adams

Dr. Joshua Adams is a professor of practice in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University, where he also serves as the director of online graduate programs. He earned his master’s degree in forensic science from George Mason University and his PhD in criminal justice from Walden University.

Dr. Adams has 20 years of federal law enforcement experience, more than half of which has been in the conduct and/or supervision of felony-level criminal investigations for the US Army Criminal Investigation Division (Army CID) as a special agent/criminal investigator. His research interests center on criminal investigation and forensic science, particularly in rural policing, crime scene investigation, military policing, police legitimacy, police leadership, and organizational justice. He has published in The Qualitative Report, the Journal of Forensic Sciences, and the Journal of Forensic Identification.

Dr. Adams is a member of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, and Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Incorporated.

The Challenges of Digitized Investigations

“Every aspect of investigations has been impacted by digitization in some way,” Dr. Adams says. “The investigation and criminal lab processes have become increasingly more efficient and automated. And both forensic scientists and investigators have had to adapt and seek additional training as technology has evolved.”

The impacts of digitization have been both positive and negative. Investigators generally have much more evidence to select from: a suspect’s phone, or a victim’s, can provide an enormous amount of pertinent information. But that information takes time to extract, verify, and adjudicate.

“One of the effects of digitization is criminal investigations and scientific inquiries, in general, have been taking a little longer to adjudicate,” Dr. Adams says. “That could negatively impact both parties, the alleged offender and the victim.”

Automating and digitizing evidence collection and storage doesn’t exclude the need for more analog methods, either. Technology can fail. Anything plugged into a network can be hacked.

“We can’t lose the manual skills,” Dr. Adams says. “If someone breaks into an agency’s computer system and hijacks it utilizing ransomware, the show must go on. You have to revert to manual ways of logging in evidence and memorializing interviews.”

Today’s investigators need to be more skilled than ever. In addition to an understanding of the old school fundamentals that drive all investigation, they need to be able to fight crime with modern tools. Knowing how to perform a phone extraction rather than sending it to a forensics lab can save vital time. Understanding the technological landscape allows one to understand where critical clues could be hiding.

Thinking Human in a Digital World

“Even though we are becoming increasingly digitized, humans are the ones breaking the law, and humans are the ones investigating,” Dr. Adams says. “As humans, we always leave some part of ourselves somewhere.”

Dr. Adams points to Locard’s exchange principle—a fundamental tenet of forensic science—being as important today as it ever was. The principle states that every contact leaves a trace. And today, there are more points of contact, and more methods of detecting trace evidence, than ever before. Dr. Adams suggests that a perpetrator might remember to wipe their fingerprints off a gun, but will they remove the serial number? Will they be cognizant of the CCTV recording of the original gun purchase? In an age where so many devices are recording so much information at all times, evidence can be hidden everywhere.

Some human aspects, however, are less important today than they used to be. Eliciting confessions, for instance, no longer has the finality it once did. Juries and investigators are more sensitive to how information provided through interrogation can be tainted or influenced. Meanwhile, investigators have many other objective data points to collect evidence and potentially link suspects to crimes.

“Long gone are the days where a confession is the best evidence you can have,” Dr. Adams says. “Even if you have a confession, you’ll need plenty of corroborating evidence. You need to go beyond any reasonable doubt.”

The Future of Investigations

The digitization trend isn’t slowing down, and investigations will continue to get more digital and high-tech. Dr. Adams envisions new crime scene mapping technology to present highly accurate visualizations to jurors, even virtual walkthroughs. Virtual autopsies could further link the lab with the crime scene. Virtual reality headsets are already being utilized in the classroom, it’s possible they could be used in the courtroom next.

Today, most minds are focused on what AI can do in their field. But as Dr. Adams points out, AI’s been working in investigations for years now.

“AI has already found its way into investigations, and it will continue to do so,” Dr. Adams says. “A lot of people don’t realize that AI drives facial recognition software. A human can’t go through Facebook, Twitter, and the DMV system to look at 15,000 different faces in five seconds, while an algorithm can. But facial recognition software use is very controversial, and it’s not widely accepted in all geographic regions or in all courtrooms.”

The continued use of AI in investigations will require a mix of open-mindedness and discernment. But Dr. Adams expects AI to be leveraged in various investigative processes, from document verification to quality assurance. Indeed, AI may make an ideal partner in the lab, on the crime scene, and in the field. Both investigators and forensics professionals would be well advised to learn to get along with their new algorithmic coworkers.

“In the future, investigations will continue to involve multiple domains,” Dr. Adams says. “It’s going to take highly trained and motivated critical thinkers to catch tomorrow’s offenders.”


Matt Zbrog

Matt Zbrog is a writer and researcher from Southern California. Since 2018, he’s written extensively about the increasing digitization of investigations, the growing importance of forensic science, and emerging areas of investigative practice like open source intelligence (OSINT) and blockchain forensics. His writing and research are focused on learning from those who know the subject best, including leaders and subject matter specialists from the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) and the American Academy of Forensic Science (AAFS). As part of the Big Employers in Forensics series, Matt has conducted detailed interviews with forensic experts at the ATF, DEA, FBI, and NCIS.