Sexual assault cases. Harassment cases. Stalking cases. Extortion cases. Nonconsensual image violations. Threats of violence. These are just a few examples where technology-based evidence can play a huge role in helping a victim of abuse during an investigation.
“Technology-based evidence would be any kind of evidence that exists in a digital environment,” said Bryan Franke, a police detective assigned to the cyber crimes unit and founder of 2C Solutions, a provider of technology-based training. “It could be things like emails, it could be chat messages, iMessages, digital pictures…photographs that were taken with cell phones…communications through Snapchat or Facebook messenger.”
Over the last decade, technology-based evidence has evolved at a rapid pace and Franke does not see it slowing down.
“It is constantly evolving,” Franke told Campus Safety. “Smartphones are hands-down the number one go-to for digital evidence.”
At the Conference on Crimes Against Women in April, Franke was invited to discuss the significance of technology-based evidence and how it can be used to turn investigations around. He drew from real-life examples and cases he has worked, many of which were stalking or domestic violence cases.
Since technology has become so advanced, a victim may not always be suffering from abuse or assault physically. Now, abusers can do it from the comfort of their own homes, hiding behind a computer screen.
In one stalking case, Franke explained how by going into a phone and retrieving deleted text messages, investigators were able to find death threats and nonconsensual image violations sent by the suspect.
“If we didn’t do the forensics on his phone, we would not have recovered [the deleted text messages]. So think about presenting that case with none of that information. You’ve got a pretty decent case, but with this, now you’re taking it to the next level,” Franke said. “Now you have that physical link between the suspect and these communications.”
In this case, the suspect hacked the victim’s Snapchat account and sent nonconsensual images to all of her followers. With social media being so prominent in today’s world and a norm for younger generations, Franke says it shows up in many of his cases as well.
“They’re putting so much of their life out on social media,” he said. “And, unfortunately, we’re in an environment where sometimes that’s misused by people that are stalking somebody and it’s giving them essentially easy access.”
In other cases, Franke and his team may conduct a full-blown forensics report and look at data on hard drives in computers or GPS devices to potentially locate suspects. Through those forensics, they are able to put together a clear picture of what could be taking place between a suspect and victim.
Using Technology-based Evidence in Campus Sexual Assault Investigations
Technology-based evidence can also be useful during campus sexual assault investigations, and Franke has seen many colleges and universities effectively using it.
“I think that campuses are a little bit more aware of technology because most of the universities out there have a technology track component to their education system,” he said. “So that brings an increased level of awareness to them as well.”
Despite the awareness, he says there is still room for improvement.
Franke believes the real struggle for schools can be affording digital evidence resources. Smaller schools or community colleges especially, “don’t have the additional financial resources to gain that capability.”
“They do the best with what they’ve got, which many times do not include the digital component or the cyber component of criminal investigations,” he said.
Franke also gave some tips to victims or survivors of abuse to help facilitate a more thorough investigation into their specific situation.
“One of the easiest things is to start maintaining a log of communications,” he said. “Either write it down into a binder or a notebook…that’s a very easy way and a quick way to provide a lot more accurate perspective of just how extensive is the communication.”
Here are some further resources if you or someone you know is dealing with domestic violence or assault:
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