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Technology that claims to pick up traces of illicit images on PCs has attracted the interest of Australian cops. The software, developed in an Australian University, might eventually be used to screen PCs for pr0n during border inspections.

Compared to breath test tools used by the police in a different context, the software - developed at Perth's Edith Cowan University in association with local police from Western Australia - is undergoing beta testing.

Described as Simple Image Preview Live Environment (SImPLE), the application is designed to be easy to use by law enforcement officers, even those with few computer skills. The main application of the technology is in hunting for images of child abuse on suspect PCs, though other application, such as border screening of computers, are under review.

The software runs off a Linux-bootable CD that can be put into the CD-ROM drive of a PC to load up a separate environment without affecting anything already on the PC. Copies of potentially interesting evidence are written to a DVD- writer attached to a computer.

Evidence obtained through the tool is admissible in court, at least in Australia.

Australian scientists hope to sell the software to law enforcement agencies worldwide following its release, scheduled for next February.

The application is only capable of searching for dodgy content in existing files, not for deleted or partially overwritten files, unlike more powerful forensic tools.

In this way, the tool is more like a hand-held breath-test machine rather than something that looks for the tell-tale presence of drugs or alcohol in blood or urine sample.

Applications of SImPLE could include the analysis of PCs passing through border controls, an already controversial practice.

Its developers hope the tool will cut down on the workload faced by computer forensic specialists by allowing front line cops to perform a screening role.

Associate Professor Craig Valli, of the Edith Cowan University, explained that the tool would reduce the need for highly trained experts to carry out initial profiling of evidence. "The design concept is that any police person with adequate training could use the tool, so that when they go into a crime scene they can quickly review a computer for illicit images or videos," he said. "It is not digging down into the hard drive to find anything that has been deleted. It is just what is topically available."

Instead of taking suspect computers off to a lab, the tool would allow front-line officers to make a determination. That might be good for the needs of law enforcement but it might encourage a "stop and search" culture of computers, particularly at border control, that is sure to raise objections from civil liberties activists and result in more random searches.

The developers hope to license the software to technology firms or sell it to foreign police forces. It's also possible that the software could be adapted to search for financial documents, a adaptation of interest to financial police (and corporate spies, we'd add).

More details on the technology can be found on Australian IT here. ®

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