05 September 2019

Finding lines of enquiry from academic research: A personal perspective

DS Paul Taylor from Greater Manchester Police has recently completed a master’s degree in Cyber Security, Threat Intelligence and Forensics at the University of Salford.  Here he talks about his experiences of putting research into practice.

Why did you first decide to carry out research on cryptocurrency-related crime?  

Whilst working on one of the UK's first bitcoin money laundering investigations in early 2014 it became apparent to me that there was an urgent need to develop our understanding of emerging threats to address the challenges that online criminality and cryptocurrencies increasingly presented.  In 2016, my colleague and I were granted funding through the N8 Policing Research Partnership to enable us to work closely with academics to gain an understanding of how law enforcement could effectively investigate cases involving the criminal abuse of cryptocurrencies.  We partnered with a collaborative team from the universities of Leeds, Birmingham and Liverpool and set off purchasing bitcoin, transacting in the way criminals would.

What did you find?

 Our research uncovered that an increase in availability of services to facilitate the purchasing, storage and transfer of bitcoin led to innovative criminals exploiting its peer to peer, decentralised nature to receive payments from extortion demands, transferring currency between peers (with little or no oversight) and storing their 'ill-gotten gains' without the need to rely on bags of cash or the traditional banking system.  We identified methods by which investigative opportunities could be uncovered; promoted a network of individuals in law enforcement who could assist on cases; and produced quick guides for the benefit of frontline staff when searching premises, with the intention of increasing the probability of uncovering criminal assets.

Working alongside academics gave us a clearer structure with the confidence to push the boundaries of what we were able to achieve. Our activities became research-focused and collaborative rather than enforcement-led. This approach allowed us to run exercises, gather data and engage with partners in ways we simply could not have done had this been a police only project.  

What led you to study a Masters programme in Cyber Security, Threat Intelligence and Forensics?

After joining Greater Manchester Police's new Cyber Crime Team I tried to find training to support my new role. The role was extremely varied and required me to instantly go from being a fraud investigator to a one stop shop for all things digital, with a limited choice of training available. A colleague told me about the College of Policing Bursary Scheme and following my experience with the N8 PRP research project, I could see real value in doing further study. I successfully applied to the Bursary Scheme for funding to support part time study at The University of Salford on their MSc course for Cyber Security, Threat Intelligence and Forensics.

The course content aligned perfectly with my new role and I was able to use the knowledge I learned one day, to good practical effect as a cyber-crime investigator the next.  It was important to me to be able to produce work for my assessments that would be of benefit to myself and others working in cyber-crime investigations.  The assignments I had to complete allowed me to explore topics relevant to cyber-crime policing. In my first year I explored, from a policing point of view, the opportunities for digital forensic investigators when investigating cases of cyber-crime, fraud, malicious communications and sexual offences committed against people using multiplayer online gaming, with Minecraft as a case study.  I discovered that a reasonable amount of communication was retained between both parties on the suspect devices and reported on methods which could be used to identify the suspect.  I shared this with my immediate colleagues and, via my role in the Regional Cyber Crime Unit, was able to tell digital forensic practitioners throughout the North West and beyond about these investigative opportunities. I have since co-authored an article on this research in the Science and Justice journal (see links below)

What topic did you select for your dissertation?

For my final dissertation I was keen to produce a piece of work that would assist investigators in dealing with cryptocurrency-related investigations.  An earlier assignment led to me conducting a systematic literature review of blockchain cyber security. From the literature review I established that there was a real gap in knowledge about the opportunities available to investigators; particularly involving cases where suspects used a variety of hardware and software 'wallets' to store their criminal proceeds.  I used computer programming skills (from almost 20 years ago) to develop tools that identified use of particular cryptocurrency wallets on devices and could be used to support police investigations.  I am continuing to develop these tools with other law enforcement colleagues, which will allow investigators to identify the use of cryptocurrency wallets on live machines and also assist in the recovery of, and access to,  suspect wallets.  

How have your research findings been used in the policing response to cryptocurrency-related crime?

One of the tools I have developed has been used successfully in a case where devices were seized from an individual dealing drugs on the dark web.  My tool was able to locate information vital to the recovery of cryptocurrency wallets that the suspect had stored on the device, which led to further financial lines of enquiry.  My experience, research and skills have allowed me to contribute to national guidance on the investigation of cryptocurrencies, leading to the publication of the National Police Chiefs Council Guide (NPCC) to Understanding and Investigating Cryptocurrencies, which has been shared throughout law enforcement.  On the back of this collaborative working with colleagues in the NPCC, I am also involved with helping to develop a national cryptocurrency tactical advisor network and we are proud to have many colleagues in the North West already in a position where they have completed their training and are providing evidence in firearms, drugs, fraud and cyber-crime cases.  

When I find the time, I continue to enjoy delivering training to law enforcement partners and supporting criminal investigations across a variety of crime areas, from initial advice through to court.

I have been involved in a couple of cases recently that have led to me contributing evidence in a positive way. One such example was a dark web drugs case, where I was able to show that the suspect had been using bitcoin to purchase drugs on the dark web and launder the proceeds of street level drug dealing through trading bitcoin and cash offline.  Another example concerned a firearms investigation where the amount of bitcoin transacted and the timings of the transactions provided useful evidence in supporting a case against several defendants involved with importing firearms and ammunition.

Having completed your Masters, have you got any hints and tips for people thinking about starting academic study or those already in the middle of it?

Having successfully completed my studies I now ponder what's next?  I would love to aim for a PhD and I continue to seek police and academic partnerships that help us face new emerging challenges in the area of cyber-crime. Despite my desire to continue studying I cannot help but reflect on the last two and a half years and consider it to be one of the most challenging times of my life; intense study, house moves, job moves and two young kids that aren't big fans of sleep! 

With all that in mind, I would advise anyone considering entering into a course of study to stop and think about how they would manage balancing the demands of work and home to secure enough time to read, revise and produce the assignments necessary to complete the course.  At times I must admit I came close to giving up and if it wasn't for the support of my family and colleagues I just might have.  In the end, the main thing that got me through was believing that the work I was producing would really make a difference in an area of work that I truly care for.  For anyone heading down the path of further study, find something you care about and foster that passion by taking every opportunity to expand your knowledge, create friendships with your student peers and lecturers and focus on the end goal of producing work which means something to you that you can share with pride. 

Best of luck to you all!

Paul completed his Masters and was awarded a distinction.