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A breathalyser-style tool for PCs capable of spotting potentially illegal activity is needed in order to address a mounting computer forensics workload. However experts in the field warn that such a device, desirable though it might be, could be difficult to develop in a reliable form.

Detective Superintendent Charlie McMurdie, who spearheaded the successful campaign to establish the UK's forthcoming Police Central E-crime Unit (PCeU), said officers needed an easy to use tool for computer forensics in order to deal with the growing numbers of seizures. Computer evidence increasingly forms a part of more and more cases ranging from the more traditional areas of fraud and child pornography to serious crime and murder investigations.

Instead of taking away all PCs to be examined in a lab, the equivalent of hauling every suspected drink driver in for a blood test, an easy to use tool could be used to carry out a quick assessment and retrieve evidence.

McMurdie told silicon.com: "Do we need to seize five computers in a suspect's house or could we use a simple tool to preview on site and identify there's that one email we are looking for and we can then use that and interview the person now, rather then waiting six to 12 months for the evidence to come back to us?”

"For example, look at breathalysers - I am not a scientist, I could not do a chemical test on somebody when they are arrested for drink driving but I have a tool that tells me when to bring somebody in."

Computer forensics analysis is typically carried out using the Guidance Software EnCase tool, often by computer forensics experts in private industry. The back log of this work is huge and officers can potentially wait months for the result of such forensics work.

Experts reckon that developing a simple PC breathalyser-style device would involve overcoming challenging technical problems. "From a practical point of view this is much more difficult than it might seems. You can't just plug a memory stick into a PC and extract internet history files, that will alter the state of the computer. Write blocking technology is needed and that's expensive," said Simon Steggles, director of of data recovery and computer forensics specialists Disklabs.

A simple computer forensics tool might be possible, Microsoft has reportedly supplied such a USB form-factor device to law enforcement agencies, at no cost and on a trial basis. But no off-the-shelf kit exists.

McMurdie also talked about plans to establish a "central forensic server" that computer forensics experts across the country might use. "Say one of the banks is attacked and we need to have a look at one of their hard drives: that bank would have something that they can plug their system in to and that connects to this central forensic server," she said.

"Say there is a copper who is a forensic expert in Devon and Cornwall, he could hook into the central server and deal with it from Devon and Cornwall, rather than traveling up to London." ®

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