Forensic Science at the service of the Australian Federal Police

Interview with Dr. Walsh, Chief Scientist – Forensics, Australian Federal Police (AFP)

Operating in a fast-changing environment

Society is becoming more digitised, globalised and connected, increasingly enabled by and dependent on technology, resulting in lives that are now a hybrid of the physical and digital world. Concurrently, advances in technology have changed the criminal operating environment by assisting criminals to rapidly alter and shift the way they operate and therefore how crime impacts lives. There is no end point to this – and the more that technology continues to develop and evolve, changes in criminal methodology will follow, presenting a fast paced and evolving landscape of offending that does not follow traditional patterns.

This complexity is overlaid by an increasing volume of demand. Crimes can now be committed against Australian citizens and assets from anywhere in the world and digital tools empower faster and higher levels of criminal activity. Enabled by crypto currencies and a range of alternate financial systems, new ways to operate are making it harder to track money flows while artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques are easier to access and accelerating a range of criminal capabilities. This includes faster and better digital precision in targeting individuals for fraud, extortion or influence, and potential uses for active disinformation campaigns, from recruitment to creating distraction or undermining community cohesion. Cross border and borderless crimes, enabled by technology, further increase this complexity.

Not to mention the use and uptake of Digital Technologies, that has driven a large investment by the Australian Federal Police (AFP) in digital support services such as Digital Forensics, in areas such as staff, training, tooling & capability development. For example, the AFP Digital Forensics staff numbers have almost tripled in the last 7 years. Arguably, the demand for digital evidence has now exceeded other types of physical evidence, such as biometrics and chemical analysis.

Harnessing new DNA techniques

AFP Forensics refers to DNA phenotyping as Physical Trait Prediction (PTP), which is a live capability accredited under our quality assurance framework by our national accreditation body, NATA. We utilise Massively Parallel Sequencing technology (MPS) allowing forensic scientists to predict an individual’s eye colour, hair colour and biogeographical ancestry (for example Caucasian, African or East Asian) from DNA left at a crime scene. This capability can add value to investigations where there are no person of interests (POIs) providing a prediction of the suspects physical traits. DNA phenotyping would be advantageous in instances where there are multiple POIs in a pool of possible suspects. We are using advanced DNA capabilities in all AFP matters, Australian Capital Territory Policing matters (AFP local jurisdiction) as well as in referrals from national and international law enforcement agencies in Australia and New Zealand.

For example, the AFP’s National DNA Program for Unidentified and Missing Persons has implemented a validated, accredited and privacy-compliant forensic DNA phenotyping capability for unidentified human remains (UHR) casework. The capability has so far been applied to 15 cases to aid unidentified and missing persons investigations. Cases which have not been able to be resolved using standard human identification techniques like dental and DNA data comparisons. The Program is using this capability to estimate an unknown individual’s biogeographical ancestry and eye/hair colour to refine missing person candidate lists, inform pigmentation features for craniofacial reconstructions, and determine appropriate management practices for historical remains, that is, to determine if historical remains are likely of Aboriginal or European ancestry.  

There are several legal implications considered in utilising predictive DNA analysis coalesce around privacy and human rights. Phenotypic analysis of DNA samples is a technique which is not expressly regulated or prohibited, as there is currently no Federal legislation in Australia addressing the use of the PTP capability. The utilisation of the AFP’s PTP capability is restricted to regulations stated under the Australian Privacy Act 1988 (Cth) and the Australian Privacy Principles. As a result, AFP Forensics has implemented a Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA) which stipulates how the AFP should collect, use and disclose genetic information arising from the operational use of PTP, considering the AFP’s legal obligations under the Australian Privacy Act and Australian Privacy Principles. The PIA consists of a list of recommendations that the AFP must adhere to.

Developing international cooperations

The AFP has had a presence internationally for over 50 years. Our global footprint now spans across 34 countries including the UK, USA, Asia, Africa, the Pacific and Europe. We build strong collaborative multilateral and bilateral stakeholder relationships through strategic engagement to achieve shared outcomes and objectives with onshore and offshore partners.

AFP also facilitates and delivers capability development offshore to strengthen the rule of law in our region and enhance Australia’s national security. Almost ten years ago, when the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down by Russian-backed separatists in Eastern Ukraine, the AFP deployed quickly and committed a large number of officers to the international response to this incident. AFP Forensics was a critical contributor to resolve both humanitarian and criminal investigative outcomes with Dutch Authorities and a range of other partners. Pre-existing relationships and partnerships are critical to ensuring these joint teams of specialist officers can come together quickly and effectively when needed.