Adam Belsher, CEO - Magnet Forensics (Q&A)
Technology and the Internet play a huge role in the execution of criminal activity today. How is Magnet Forensics enabling law enforcement officials to better battle against these forces of evil?
The world of technology is constantly changing. If you rewind ten years, the smartphone, social media and mobile chat was in its infancy. We are now leaving a digital footprint from our use of digital devices and how we interact with others. This includes smartphones, tablets, computers, wearables (i.e. fitness trackers, watches), home automation products (i.e. Thermostats, security systems, audio systems) and even Infotainment systems in vehicles. Whether it’s apps like Snapchat, Instagram, or Google searches, the amount of data that one creates by using all of today’s technologies is incredible. Everyone is leaving a digital footprint, including criminals.
Many police services are challenged by budgets and a lack of training which can keep them using outdated tools to recover and analyze digital evidence that were developed 20 years ago. Those legacy tools didn’t contemplate the connected world we now live in. They were developed with a focus on the digital evidence of the times that largely consisted of Microsoft Office related documents.
Digital evidence is now part of every investigation whether its related to child exploitation, homicide, fraud, burglary, terrorism or drug cases. Not to mention cybercrimes – crimes that take place wholly online. The most critical digital evidence is typically found in our internet activity and communications. This includes someone’s web browsing activity, chat communications, or anything a suspect may be doing on the internet. The average criminal case now has eight digital devices that need to be analyzed which typically includes tablets, laptops, and smartphones.
The challenge with the traditional way of conducting digital investigations is it’s a very manual process. This is no longer feasible given the large volumes of digital evidence to analyze. When it comes to high profile cases, for example a missing child, it can take days at best but often a week or longer for an investigating team to examine all that digital evidence. That’s not a timeframe anyone is happy with. Most investigators will tell you, the longer an investigation takes, the less likely it will result in a successful outcome, whether that’s finding a missing person, convicting a criminal or exonerating the innocent and so on.
Some of our customers are experiencing months, and in some cases over a year, before they will be able to analyze digital evidence that was seized. There is additional pressure on Canadian law enforcement with a recent ruling by the Supreme Court called the Jordan Decision which puts a ceiling on the time from someone being charged to the conclusion of their trial. This requires law enforcement to re-imagine their approach to analyzing and reviewing digital evidence given the growing volumes and complexity of the data.
What we’ve created at Magnet Forensics is the only comprehensive digital investigation platform that provides a single view into multiple data sources (smartphone, computer, cloud and IoT devices) and brings to light connections and relationships between people, places and things. We use machine learning and other advanced analytics to surface relevant evidence in an automated fashion to give the investigator a great starting point. They can start piecing together what happened and building their case. For example, instead of looking at 1000 messages in a conversation thread we will identify the ones that are related to child luring that investigators can start reviewing. In addition to helping save children and getting predators off the street, this is a huge time saver and helps reduce case backlogs that are plaguing law enforcement agencies around the world.
Magnet Forensics has, in a relatively short time frame, become a world leader in digital forensics and one of the fastest growing technology companies in Canada - to what do you attribute your success?
First, I believe our growth and our success is directly related to our mission, to empower the people who use our products to seek justice and protect the innocent. Everyone wants to be part of something that is bigger than they are. Second, it’s building the right team. It’s most critical for us to hire employees who will stand by our mission and fight for it. We’ve also built a team that creates a blend of young, smart people who are early in their career, and more mature employees with career and life experience. It’s great to be able to have staff who can mentor each other and who are committed to continuous learning. And finally, our success comes from being customer focused. We must make sure investigators are getting the critical digital evidence they need to make their case in a timely fashion. This means regularly updating our software and investing in innovation to keep our tools cutting edge.
With its significant technology pedigree, is there an opportunity for Waterloo Region, the R+T Park, and companies such as Magnet Forensics (among others) to contribute to Canada’s leadership in the field of cybersecurity? Are there initiatives and activities underway that you can speak to?
I think there are a few companies locally, Magnet Forensics, of course, and Cambridge-based eSentire, that are helping to grow Waterloo Region’ expertise in the field of cybersecurity. But the potential goes beyond Waterloo Region. On a broader scale, Magnet Forensics is actively involved with the Council of Canadian Innovators (CCI), which brings together 80 of Canada’s fastest growing technology companies. Of that group, about 20 companies are focused on cybersecurity, with a focus on making sure companies and government in Canada and around the world are cyber-ready. So there’s strong potential for a cybersecurity tech cluster to grow here at home. The Canadian government is particularly keen to develop domestic cybersecurity initiatives and cultivate domestic expertise, as there are policy issues related to having foreign companies involved in cybersecurity.
What lies next for Magnet Forensics?
Big things. We just acquired a company in the U.S. We are continuing to invest in innovations such as machine learning and AI to help keep us on the forefront of understanding this digital evidence tsunami. Unfortunately, cybercrime is growing rapidly and there’s constantly new sources of evidence where investigators need to collect data, from FitBits which can tell us how many steps someone took and if they followed their sleep cycle, to an LG fridge which might show that somebody opened the fridge although they said nobody was home, to someone’s vehicle GPS proving that they drove towards the direction of the crime scene. More and more digital footprints are being created and we’re constantly finding new ways to help put together the pieces of what happened when a crime has taken place.
Magnet has been traditionally been focused on helping law enforcement find the evidence to solve a crime that occurred and prosecute criminals faster. But with advances in machine learning and predictive AI, are you also looking at solutions for crime prevention as well?
Yes. We see this unfolding through partnerships with other companies with complementary technologies. We see this ability to predict patterns of criminal behavior as another piece to our approach in bringing everything together in an integrated fashion. With all the criminality, there’s lots of data in different systems and regional silos. But criminal activity as we know doesn’t stay contained. Currently, there’s no way for investigators across jurisdictions to link together digital evidence to see larger patterns and to better communicate. It’s a terrific opportunity for us and our mission and we believe it could help prevent crime in the future.
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