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Training needed to face the cyber ‘battlefield’
Detective Sergeant Paul Johnstone

05 Dec 2023 / policing Print

AI can help in probes, Garda expert tells prosecutors

Cyber-crime training courses that, up until now, have only been accessed by law-enforcement organisations across Europe will soon be made available to prosecutors in Ireland.

This is according to Detective Sergeant Paul Johnstone, who has been attached to the Garda National Cyber Crime Bureau (GNCCB) since 2001 and is currently Vice-Chair of the European Cybercrime Training and Education Group (ECTEG). based in Brussels.

He invited the Office of the DPP to look at how the courses could be rolled out to prosecutors in Ireland at the 24th Annual National Prosecutors’ Conference in the Convention Centre Dublin (25 November).

IT forensics

One of the training programmes Johnstone encouraged attendees to consider was eFirst. This ECTEG package has been targeted at first responders in law enforcement, and focuses on essential IT forensics and IT crime knowledge.

Developed by prosecutors and law-enforcement experts from across the EU and the European Economic Area, it can be delivered onsite or online.

“eFirst helps participants to gain awareness of all types of cyber-crimes and the technologies involved, as well as understand the search and seizure of potential electronic evidence. There is also a really good tool that can be used to extract initial data from devices,” Johnstone (pictured) explained.

‘Rapid’ expansion of cyber-crime

The event heard that there was a real need for this type of upskilling to adapt to the ever-changing cyber-crime landscape, which Johnstone described as “a battlefield”.

“If anybody says they have all the answers about cyber-crime, they’re lying. It’s not possible to know everything about it, as it’s expanding at such a rapid rate. When I went into the GNCCB over 20 years ago, the average computer held the equivalent of the contents of the National Library of Ireland,” he said.

“Now, the average computer includes the contents of all the national libraries of most European countries combined – so that’s the level of data investigators and prosecutors are dealing with on cases every day. To trawl through that is extensive.”

The conference heard that cyber-criminals were exploiting the evolution of technology to their advantage, using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to upscale their activities and encrypt their communications to prevent access by investigators. “We have to keep pace with all of this,” said Johnstone.

“However, the emergence of AI and machine learning is not entirely negative from our point of view. These new technologies have made our work easier, quicker and more efficient; more capable, robust and more restricted.

“We have successfully used AI on a limited basis to process large volumes of data over the past number of years – for example, for trawling through thousands of child-sexual-abuse images to identify victims, objects or subjects. The intention is to upscale that going forward.”

AI used in ‘catfishing’ case

At the prosecutors’ conference, Johnstone shared how the GNCCB used AI to identify a victim and a suspect in a recent ‘catfishing’ case on social media.

A 14-year old girl was targeted online by what appeared to be another girl of the same age. Over the course of their conversation, sexualised images were exchanged.

The GNCCB took out the crest from an image of the victim in a school uniform and used AI to run a search on Interpol’s Child Sexual Exploitation database.

“From this search, we were able to ascertain that the image had been shared before by another party in the same school. We were able to identify the school; then subsequently identify an Irish victim, and then the actual suspect, who was a male in his forties,” said Johnstone.

“A primary benefit of AI from our point of view is that it reduces the impact on our examiners and investigators of having to review offensive material. It enables us to progress a case far quicker than we ever could when I arrived into the bureau.”

However, AI will never replace human interaction, he stressed: “There will always have to be a final review by an actual person for accuracy.

"The process has to be justified and authorised by law or a court order and be subject to internal and external scrutiny. The use of AI in criminal cases must be targeted, proportionate and cognisant of individuals’ rights,” he concluded.

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