CICJ Education: Digital Evidence and Online Investigations

By Isabella Regan*

Digital evidence and online, open-source investigations increasingly play a role within international criminal investigations, involving both public and private actors in collecting, analyzing and storing digital information. This shift is leading to practical, ethical, and judicial implications in the (near future), which must be critically, academically assessed.  In response to the societal developments and ICCC alumni feedback, there is a call for general knowledge on digital investigations, basic online investigative skills and awareness of current and future technological developments. Hence, the university teaching programs have to catch up to prepare the students for a future in this dynamic field.

Luckily, many partnerships and initiatives are aimed at researching and incorporating technological developments within international criminal investigations, by both public investigative bodies as civil society actors, who may also be involved in deepening the students’ awareness of the practical side of online evidence collection.

A collaboration between the VU researchers, Isabella Regan and Joris van Wijk, and external experts: Yvonne McDermott Rees (Swansea University, OSR4Rights), Yara Badar (Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM)), Ludo Hekman (Lighthouse Reports), and an ICC Investigations Division analyst, led to a successful launch of the Expert Seminar on Digital Evidence and Conflict-Related Crimes, open to ICCC MSc students.

In April 2021, a group of 36 MSc students delved deep into the technological developments within criminal investigations, the role of private actors herein and (critically) assessed the possibilities and implications for criminal investigations. As preparation, students tried out online open-source techniques of photo analysis and geo-location and reflected on potential international crimes committed at that location.

Credit: WikiCommons/NASA

Inspired by the speakers, the students covered an impressive range of topics for their final assignments: vicarious trauma among open-source investigators, risks of deep fakes, democratization of investigations, the role of user-generated information, problems of algorithms, crowdsourced investigations and many more. Each paper reflected on a particular technical, legal, ethical, or practical implication of digital investigations by public and private actors.

Considering the importance of digital investigations and technological developments in the field, we hope this Expert Seminar is the first of continuing efforts to incorporate this topic in CICJ’s education and research.

“Great to continually have speakers working in the field on this topic join too, to get more insights and options for how to work in the field in the future.” Student testimonial

“As a totally new subject, I really appreciated the inclusion of this course in the syllabus of our masters[…] it is fantastic to see it included and I very much hope it stays for future students.” Student testimonial

*Isabella Regan is a lecturer of criminology at the VU and CICJ researcher. To get in touch, email at I.Regan@vu.nl