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Thursday, February 28, 2019

The importance of audio

It's been about 4 years now since the body-worn camera really exploded on the scene. Citizens demanded accountability and transparency from their police and the market responded with cameras of all types.  Cameras have been deployed on the officer, on the vehicle, and in the air (drones / helicopters). Citizens like the real-time view that theses cameras bring in reviewing officers' interactions with the public. BUT ... these cameras often come with a very sensitive microphone that can clearly capture not only the words of the officers but also every single sound within about 25' radius. This can be a problem in light of the various privacy laws that exist in the US.

This mind-blowing amount of data is sitting in servers at police stations and in the cloud via platforms like Evidence.com. The majority of the cloud vendors offer a solution to accommodate records act releases in light of the many privacy laws that require compliance. But, as users are finding out, pennies saved on features not purchased are costing them dollars when dealing with redaction and other requests for the video they store.

When an agency goes through an equipment purchasing process, they often expend all of their resources and are locked into the solution for years - sometimes a decade or longer. Thus, the test / validate process becomes vital. It's equally vital that all stakeholders participate.

Many agencies purchased camera and storage solutions, but skipped on a redaction plan to come under spending targets. Or, they had a legal structure that let them deny requests for data at the time - but that legal assurance no longer exists (California's new laws are an example of this). They're now faced with new challenges as laws have been enacted / changed to assure that disclosure of videos is the norm, not the exception. Given the guidance in SWGDE's Video and Audio Redaction Guidelines, that redaction must include the audio, video, and metadata, agencies are scrambling to cobble together solutions to fulfill records requests in a timely and cost effective manor.

Video redaction is rather straight forward. Many tools have offered the basic blur, mosaic, and/or solid shape redactions for video content for quite some time. The COTS tools from Adobe, Apple, Avid, Magic all offer some form of global or selective video redaction. There are purpose built redaction tools from Axon, Ikena, etc. that offer redaction as well. Tools like Amped's FIVE have the ability to redact video. BUT ... it's the audio / metadata redaction where many tools fall short.

Amped SRL's CEO promised audio redaction in FIVE in 2106 at the LEVA Training Symposium in Scottsdale in support of Amped's partnership with Axon (who were both present at the Symposium as vendors). To date, audio redaction still has not been implemented in FIVE. Sure, if audio is present in the file, FIVE will pass it through or strip it out. But FIVE isn't an audio editing / redacting tool. For redactions with FIVE, I suggest using FIVE to separate the audio and using a tool like Audacity to edit / redact the audio. At leas Audacity is free and easy to use. If an agency has multiple people working on redaction, it really does make sense to split up the redaction tasks anyway (audio / video / metadata), so I guess the lack of audio support in FIVE for the redaction task isn't that big of a deal.

Ikena's Spotlight suffers similarly. Though it supports audio redaction, it's lack of support for proprietary / secure video file types makes it a tough sell to agencies. In a comparison of FIVE vs Spotlight for redaction, it's a close call. FIVE gives you support for odd file types as well as a full suite of restoration / clarification filters. Spotlight gives you a dedicated redaction platform for audio and video. Both fall short on identifying / redacting specific elements of a file's metadata.

I've been quite the cheerleader for Amped's products over the years, and have noted their strengths for a while now. I've been teaching their product line for over 7 years now, creating and delivering a curriculum that's rather specific to forensic science. But, the lack of audio support has always been the elephant in the room. For example, with the older Video Mixer and new Multiview filters, audio is simply dropped. Users expect to mix video views to create compelling demonstratives - that include an audio source. But these filters do not allow the user to select an audio source for the resulting file. With this, they end up processing the file in a non-linear editor. This issue is where the lack of audio support becomes a big deal and brings us back to that "one tool to fix everything" discussion. It's quite obvious by now that Amped SRL wants to have the best video / image tool, and doesn't want to concern themselves with audio / metadata.

This brings us back to redaction, and the other parts of the multimedia container. If you're going to need an audio editor anyway, and if you're going to have to assemble the separately redacted parts as a final step, why not just do everything in a COTS tool and save the money?

For these reasons, and a few others, the decision was made to offer our redaction courses in many flavors. In standing up training and professional services as a separate organization this year, we can offer training in performing redactions with the relevant COTS platforms as well as a more generic redaction course for supervisory / quality control staff. The initial roll-out of our redaction classes will happen in March 2019 and feature the Adobe Creative Suite tools, Magix Software tools, and Amped SRL's FIVE paired with Audacity - each offered as a separate class. Also the generic course will highlight the different tools, focussing on the process without diving too deeply on the technology.

Recent court cases involving body-worn cameras have highlighted the importance of the devices' audio. Audio is a vital piece of the container. The audio track is often used to confirm / refute elements of complaints, uses of force, and other events that unfold before the device. Because it is present in the container, it must be redacted carefully and accurately. Because audio must be redacted, your redaction solution must include the ability to redact audio. Because it must be redacted, our training sessions feature a variety of options from the big vendors. Stay tuned ...

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

One tool to fix everything?

When I first began working cases, there weren't many vendors offering gear and services in this space. There wasn't really a market, per se. Most of us used COTS tools like Photoshop, Premiere Pro, Media Composer, etc. Then, the purpose-built tools arrived and analysts' hopes were raised - will there be one tool that fixes everything and fills every need? So many years later, the answer is still no.

For example, if you like Input-Ace for processing proprietary files, you'll likely have an extra capture tool, Photoshop for optical correction (with various plug-ins), Acrobat for reporting, and so forth. Input-Ace has some capabilities for creating demonstratives, but not on the scale of PremierePro or Media Composer - so you'll likely have one or both of those tools as well. For audio, your preference of Audacity / Audition / Sound Forge / etc. will likely depend on when you started working with audio and what plug-in suites you own. But, you'll need an audio tools as Input-Ace isn't a tool for audio forensics ... which is fine. Remember, Sound Forge isn't a tool for converting proprietary video files.

Likewise for Amped's customers. Sure, FIVE is a feature packed tool. But, like Input-Ace, it lacks full support for audio, creating robust demonstratives, etc. So, you'll need the Adobe Creative Suite or the full package from Magix (Vegas, Sound Forge, and Spectral Layers).

Why is this so?

Outside of federal / national service, it's rare to find an agency with dedicated analysts and a dedicated trial support crew. Most analysts are also asked to create demonstratives for the investigation, the media, and the court. Sometimes, trial support employees are asked to perform analysis. Often multimedia analysts are tasked with computer forensics, mobile device forensics, and the entire "digital crime scene." In a few cases, the employee is responsible for the entire crime scene - latent prints, serology, photography... + the digital stuff (CCTV, computers, phones, etc.). Usually, the smaller the agency / company, the more the individual employee is tasked to do.

Thus, there will likely never be one tool to fix everything. You may think we're close. We're not. Encase is a nice tool for computer forensics, but it doesn't really handle a computer that happens to be a DVR. For that, you'll need a tool like DVR Examiner. But even DVR Examiner has limits, some of which are addressed by Salvation Data's Video Investigator Portable (VIP). SalvationData has tools for computer and mobile device forensics as well, DME Forensics does not. It's not a bad thing. It just is.

In future posts, I'll explore some essential workflows that show this blend of tools. I'll illustrate the various points that may complicate your validation and offer tips to solve this tricky problem. In each case, we'll follow the standards and show how to populate a standards-compliant report. I'll be building out my ScreenCast portal with some of these simple video tutorials. For full fledged training to competency,  there are the options of micro-learning, in-person (in Henderson, NV), and in-person (at your location).

Whilst some may bemoan this lack of a singularity, I don't. I love the wondrous variety that has appeared in the marketplace. I welcome the challenge of showing / training / educating you about this complex topic. I'm already rolling out new training offerings, with more to come. Jump over to the training page for the up-to-date training calendar. Or, sign-up for my new newsletter.

The future of forensic multimedia analysis is wide open. I'm excited to be a part of it, and to be your guide. Join me in the fun.

Friday, February 15, 2019

A decade later, still going strong

About a decade ago, Photoshop officially became a verb in Los Angeles and I began my quest for the tool or tools that would replace my old friend. I stumbled upon a small Italian company with an amazing product - Amped SRL and it's flagship product, FIVE. I was instantly a fan. Becoming a customer was a bit more problematic as I wasn't officially a "forensic analyst" yet. As a surveillance / counter-surveillance operator, I used the fact that FIVE could connect to a Milestone Client (my Axis pole cameras) and do all those wonderful "Photoshoppy" things to the live feed. Thus, I pitched my original purchase request noting that FIVE was an ISR tool needed to add capabilities to our night-time surveillance operations.

I finally received a license, getting quite creative in the acquisition process, and began to sort out training. There was no way that my agency would send me to Italy and it was too cost prohibitive to bring an Italian instructor to Los Angeles. Luckily, the North American reseller of Amped's products was about a half-day's drive from LA. I booked a "training session" and headed down the highway.

Upon arrival, I was greeted by a friendly face and an outstretched arm that was holding a rather tasty local brew. We discussed the filters, in no particular order. We discussed use cases, in no particular order. That I had existing expertise in photography and imaging helped me to make sense and contextualize the information. But, it wasn't "training" as I recognized it or as CA POST defined it.

I made my host an offer. I'm a trained and educated curriculum / instructional designer. I'm a CA POST certified instructor. I'll design / create / deliver a curriculum for multi-media analysis, based on Amped FIVE, and deliver it to your customers under contract. Given that I often earned about half-again my income as "comp time " (aka furloughed-in-place), and that I had to use that "comp time" rather frequently, I worked out that I could deliver a training session somewhere in North America about once per month. Agreement was reached and the relationship with Amped Software, Inc. began.

Fast forward to today. I've been all over the US as a contract instructor. I've been to Canada. I've trained agents of more than 50 countries who wanted to come to the US for their training. I've spent an amazing 3 weeks in South Africa working with their police service in modernizing their offerings. A little more than 3 years ago, I retired from the LAPD and joined the staff of Amped Software, Inc, as the Director of Support / Training.

The curriculum that was developed for the North American market is fit for purpose in this market. It's not necessarily applicable for other markets around the world, although there are many similarities. I have found that the modifications made, and the specific curriculum variant created for the US military courts easily accommodates countries with a Magistrate system of jurisprudence. When teaching courses with non-US students, I make every effort to contextualize the offerings to their context.

Whilst the rest of the world moves at a slower pace, the North American market changes quite a bit year-over-year. You might of heard that Amped decided to not continue with Axon as a reseller of it's products in this market last year. What you might not know is how the changes in the latest tax laws (federal and state) have caused significant impact to the market.

To respond to the changes in tax / business law, as well as in response to the economic / market demands, I've made the decision to expand training offerings to the on-line space via a micro-learning model as a separate business entity. Being the rights-holder of my curriculum's IP, I'm able to be flexible in where / how the curriculum is presented.

The Apex Learning portal was launched shortly after the first of this year on the LearnUpon LMS. You can find out more by clicking here. All of the training that I've presented live will eventually be offered on-line via a micro-learning model. The first course is already released - Statistics for Forensic Analysts.

If you're a long-time LEVA member, like me, you might recall my mentioning a "curriculum in a box concept." The "curriculum in box" is an "undergraduate education" in digital multimedia analysis. This will eventually be fully implemented in the Apex Learning portal. The first of these classes, the aforementioned Stats class, is already live. More courses will be released soon. Next up, however, will be a redaction class that is a response to the new laws in California - but applicable to any agency faced with redacting DME under tight budgetary and time constraints.

As budgets tighten, and travel becomes a problem, migrating training and education to the virtual space, facilitated by the micro-learning model, is the logical next step. The cost savings of not having to travel to you, or for you to travel to me, is passed along in significantly lower registration costs. As an example, an undergraduate Stats class offered at Texas A&M University would cost a Texas resident about $1200 (source). This is the base rate for the class. There are also admission fees, the fees to take the pre-requisite courses, and the travel to / from College Station over the semester. Apex is offering the course at $595.

The generic university course in statistics is geared to the academic, interested in the world of objective statistics. This world is entirely different than the statistics that underpin the forensic sciences - subjective statistics. That is why, after a solid introduction, Statistics for Forensic Analysts explores the two types of statistics separately and fairly. This class is for consumers and producers of statistics within the forensic sciences - not for the quants who inhabit the university halls.

Future offerings will be priced in a similar fashion. We're able to pass the savings on to you, and we do.

It's also worth noting that the courses on offer are not "in competition" with the other classes available to analysts. As an example, the Stats class is entirely complimentary to the LEVA Levels courses and serves to further inform these information-dense offerings. The Forensic Photographic Comparison course that will arrive on the portal later this year will similarly serve as an incredible scientific foundation to LEVA's Level 3. There's no way a single vendor can offer everything that you need. We're offering courses not currently present in the market in order to support the community - not to replace offerings from your current vendors.

Finally, I'll be updating the Forensic Photoshop book and the Forensic Photoshop course and offering them via the portal. A complete refresh of the tools and plug-ins will be featured for those who are still using Photoshop. Remember, courses like LEVA Level 3 still feature Photoshop as their platform. If a student is new to Photoshop, they must learn the meat of the course and the platform at the same time. Revamping the Forensic Photoshop course will allow the LEVA student to arrive at that course with competency in the tool, assuring that they can be all-in on the instruction. For those privateers who can't afford expensive tools from government-oriented vendors, tools from companies like Adobe are still popular. DME-specific courses are needed and will be presented in the portal.

It's an exciting time here. I'm thankful that you've been with me for this amazing journey. The next few years will bring so much change to the market. Will you join with me in embracing change and upgrading your knowledge?

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Convert numbers to different number systems

Here's some helpful and time-saving advice on using MS Excel to convert numbers between different number systems (link).

Monday, February 11, 2019

Number Systems: An Introduction to Binary, Hexadecimal, and More

Here's an excellent tutorial on number systems (link) and their relationship to colour representation in computer systems.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Training, training, and more training

With the new year comes new tax laws, new regulations, and new rules that require businesses and individuals to modify their path as they navigate the world of governmental compliance. It's no different here in stormy southern Nevada.

But, with change comes opportunity. 2019 brings change for the better, and more training offerings than ever before.

I've already announced the release of Statistics for Forensic Analysts. This is offered as micro-learning, on-line and on-demand and comes in response to initiatives at the federal and state level. Given that statistics form the foundation of much of opinion based testimony in the digital forensic sciences, as well as the other disciplines that offer photographic comparison evidence (latent print, tool mark, firearms, questioned documents, etc), this class is designed to provide the necessary instruction in statistics - specifically tailored for forensic science practitioners.

With redaction begin the focus of much of the US, as well as being the focus of a new set of laws in California, I've announced a redaction class specific for California agencies to help not only with mastering the technology ... but also navigating complex a legal context. This class comes in four versions, if you will. If you're an Amped Software customer, the hands-on learning will be facilitated with Amped FIVE (video) and Audacity (audio). If you're an Adobe customer, the hands-on learning will be facilitated with the Adobe Creative Suite. If you're a Magix customer, the hands-on learning will be facilitated with Vegas and Sound Forge. And, if you haven't decided on a solution, our general class will provide an overview of all of these solutions, giving you a sense of what may work best for you, your agency, and your legal context. Even if you're not in California, their strict regime's rules help to illustrate the many compliance issues you may not realize apply to you and your agency.

All of these redaction classes will be offered via micro-learning, maximizing your training dollars and offering significant savings over traveling to training. Partnering with LearnUpon for the LMS, these micro-learning sessions are available world-wide with local currency payment options via Square, PayPal, or TransferWise. They will also be offered in Henderson, NV. If you've got a big group, and you'd like a training session at your location, that can be arranged as well. In fact, all of the offerings going forward will be available this way - on-line, in Henderson, or at your location.

It's going to be an exciting year. I'm excited that technology has evolved such that it's becoming easier and more cost effective to offer flexible training options. So stay tuned, it's going to be a fun ride. New offerings will be rolling out each month. In the meantime, head over and sign up for Statistics for Forensic Analysts ...