A male sex offender from Waterbury, CT is accused of posing as a member of the band One Direction on Skype to entice young girls to perform sex acts. The full story is here.
We need to be talking to our children about risks and risky behavior online.
For parents to have a clearer picture, let me explain what happens next.
Computer forensics, or digital forensics, can be broken into a 4 step process: Preserve electronic evidence, process the evidence, analyze the evidence, and report on findings. NOTE: This process is VERY similar to using a 35mm camera to take pictures and build a scrapbook.
Law enforcement will forensically image and preserve all available electronic evidence. This is usually the man’s computer(s) and any other electronic devices (smartphone, tablet, etc.) he has access to… basically, what is in his house. They do this using special hardware and software tools, not by copying files to a thumb-drive or burning them to a DVD.
After making a copy of the evidence, they will restore the electronic evidence using software programs that identify the files and put them into a database.
They review all of the files, often paying close attention to identifying who used the computer(s), what they were used for (in this case soliciting girls), and which programs were used. Often, they can recover IM and chat sessions, emails (even webmails), some social media history, websites visited, documents, pictures, and videos created.
Once they have analyzed all this information, they will find the relevant files and present those as evidence.
Sounds good, right? Case closed. Easy peasy… Well, maybe not.
More and more often, law enforcement is also taking any devices your kids have access to… or they should be, anyway. This helps them corroborate the interactions and what events occurred.
Even if the LE are NOT taking possession of the victims computers, counsel for the defendant surely will ask for it. I have not seen a matter yet (I am sure they are out there, but I haven’t seen it), where a judge denies the defendants request for the victims computer(s) and other electronic devices. If your child is a victim, it is critical that you ensure all electronic devices your child had access to – the home computer, their laptop for school, their smartphone, that thumb-drive with only 2 word documents on it, their tablet, their friends’ computer that they used without you knowing… all of them, are properly preserved. Now, you might be asking why? I want you to think about the mindset of defense counsel.
In the United States, we maintain the presumption of innocence, which means that the prosecutor (typically a DA or ADA for the state or federal Attorney General’s office) must prove that the accused individual is guilty. All defense counsel has to do (it is not “has to do”, it is actually a ton of work for both parties, really) is provide enough reason that it could have been some person other than the accused individual on trial.
Therefore, if you do not properly preserve electronic data, one way they can do that is to present to the jury:
- They haven’t been able to examine all of the evidence (presumably because you are hiding it)
- That critical evidence was destroyed by the accuser (this could innocently be due to a computer crash, cellphone contract expiration, broken or lost thumb-drive, etc. but will be presented that you did this intentionally.)
- The accuser is fabricating the whole story… or a large part of it.
- That it was never the accuser involved at all, but someone of age.
Defense counsel will have digital forensics experts working for them and their client (the accused). They will testify about their findings. Those findings may or may not match up with the reports from the law enforcement experts. Often, the less corroborating data there is available, the less likely it is that the experts will agree, making it more difficult for the prosecutor to prove the accused is guilty.
There are many other reasons, both technical and legal, that defense counsel can use, depending on the matter. The point is, it is critical that parents have a better understanding of the criminal process, what is needed by law enforcement, and what will be asked for by defense counsel.
It is still possible, and highly likely, that parents can raise smart, secure children that avoid these issues online. The best way to do that is to start talking, chatting, texting, Instagramming, Kik’ing, Pintresting, and communicating with your kids about online safety.