Criminals value the unlimited freedom and anonymity that they get on the Internet. But cybercops and digital forensic experts are working to change that.
We are used to seeing police officers doing street patrols. And the Internet is no different - cybercops carry out daily patrols on the Net as well. And they know all the virtual trouble spots - just as well as a cop knows their beat. But compared to their colleagues on the streets, cybercops don't do a lot of walking around. Most of their work takes place in front of a computer screen.
"Digital forensics is a relatively new science, which involves analyzing, securing and processing digital evidence," explains Steve Kovacs, who heads a masters' program in digital forensics at Albstadt-Sigmaringen University.
"It can compared to a digital autopsy. The only difference is that the evidence is digital, like a hard drive, which can be analyzed," he adds.
From IT specialist to cybercop
In the state of Bavaria, the Office of Criminal Investigation uses specially trained cops to patrol the Internet.
"With network investigations, my colleagues look for concrete proof of illegal activities," says Günter Maeser, who heads the network investigation department. "Our focus is on tracking child pornography."
But it's not just the growing problem of child pornography on the Internet that has given rise to digital forensic experts.
From 2010 to 2011, the number of all Internet crimes in Bavaria rose by around 20 percent.
In response, Bavarian police have brought in external IT specialists, who went through an intensive selection process before being trained as detectives. They now work together with experienced criminologists to track criminals on the Internet.
"So we have brought in a lot of fresh air and new ideas into our detective work," Maeser says.
CSI: Criminal Science Investigation
For these officers, the work really begins when they find evidence of criminal activity on the Net, such as child pornography.
"The criminal content has to be secured as evidence," says Maeser, explaining the process. "We want to catch the criminals in the act."
But the Internet lies outside the Bavarian state's legal jurisdiction. Many of the servers on which criminal content is stored may not even be in Germany. In such cases, Bavaria's digital forensic experts are forced to hand over any evidence to the state prosecutors, who in turn forward it to the relevant authorities.
The job can be challenging - viewing child pornography can be a psychological burden for the officers. And then there is the sheer volume of material.
"In one case, we received over three million photo and video images," Maeser explains, adding the only solution was to create tools to automate some of the work.
Cybercops are also active in other areas. For instance, they look for signs of people who may be at risk attempting suicide. Given the amount of data, the police also rely on information from members of social networks, or their operators.
"This year, we have already had 50 cases [of potential suicides], mainly from social networks," Maeser says, praising the cooperation of the operators of social networks. "We need the information to get closer to a person who may be thinking about committing suicide."
Maeser says it's all about ensuring that the Internet doesn't become a lawless place.
"We want to make our presence felt," says Maeser, "here on the Net."