After serving for around a decade with Greater Manchester Police, self taught computer 'geek' Paul Slater worked for a succession of prestigious City firms. Josh Loeb reports.
Former officer turned technology specialist Paul Slater (pictured) admits he was “a geek” when he ran his school’s computer club in the 1980s.
But his sustained interest in computing has served him well. It has allowed him to move on from being an inner city Manchester beat officer to working in the City of London for a global IT firm that helps police forces fight new forms of crime.
Paul joined Greater Manchester Police in the 1990s. After about three years on the beat he served in its then newly formed computer examination unit.
“My then girlfriend, now wife, joined the police in Manchester and hated it,” said Paul. “It was her coming home and saying ‘Today we chased an armed robber’ or ‘Today we nicked whoever’ that made me think that actually it sounded quite interesting.
“She left the police, and I joined the police. I was pushed forward to join the new high tech crime unit because someone thought: ‘This guy knows about computers. He’ll do nicely.’
“I was one of just four people in the unit. There was a sergeant, an inspector and me. Another detective then joined a week after me. We were literally it. There was no real formal training and no formal software.
“Back in those days you just kind of did it. You were looking at computers, for example something that might have been seized on nights and somebody said they thought it might be stolen. This was in late 1990s.”
Paul was “self-taught” in computing. “I taught myself programming,” he told PoliceOracle.com. “In those days [his school days in the 1980s] it was very simple.”
His high tech role at GMP was tenured for five years and got extended to seven.
In the meantime, he had begun studying for an MSc in computer forensics.
“After seven years in the specialist unit I had option of either putting a big police hat back on and driving a police van in Moss Side – I didn’t fancy that - or leaving the police and carrying on doing forensics in the commercial world.”
GMP’s loss was the, by now flourishing, commercial digital world’s gain. Paul worked for defence company QinetiQ and then the Serious Fraud Office, from where he was seconded to City auditors PwC.
He then worked for around three years for Deloitte, providing digital forensics services to both the private and public sectors.
In his current role as executive director for Europe, the Middle East and Asia at international company Nuix, Paul works on developing pioneering technology to enable police and civilian investigators to pinpoint where crimes like fraud have been perpetrated.
He has helped forge software that can process vast amounts of “unstructured” data speedily, thereby aiding investigators.
“The police might have a massive investigation like a counter-terrorism investigation.
“There might be a number of addresses that computers and devices are seized from. Traditionally someone might sit and look at the computers and analyse the phones and try and understand what is going on, almost in a silo.
"That’s not the best way of doing it because you’re not really seeing the connections.
“What we can do is put all the data into this big pot and allow people to look across all the devices at the same time to start to see patterns and connections.
“Investigators can even do that across different cases.
“You might have something going on in London and something going on in Manchester. We can enable police to see connections across those separate cases.
“It could be a case of a computer IP address that is on one system here and another here, so there is a connection, or a Wifi password is stored down here and the same password is stored here - that’s also a connection. It may not mean anything, but it’s a connection.
“This is what makes me passionate, being an investigator and being involved in helping the police and corporations. What I am able to do now is work with all the law enforcement agencies and government bodies, and everybody else.”
Paul’s vision for the future of law enforcement is of a world where technology enables police officers to do many run of the mill aspects of digital forensics themselves, without the need for forensics “boffins”.
This idea has been raised by others in the past, though some forensics insiders worry that giving officers an increased role in this area might lead to potential legal challenges from defence lawyers once cases come to court.
At a conference on the future of forensics that took place at the Royal Society earlier this year, Professor Arian van Asten from the Netherlands Forensic Institute said adapted smartphones and mini sensors allowed police to "bring the lab to the crime scene".
Paul, 48, said he could foresee a production line-style “shop floor” in digital forensics being rolled out in which low skilled workers undertook relatively unsophisticated investigatory tasks, aided by technology.
But he added: "I think some of the older forensic practitioners slightly shy away from that.
"There’s lots of talk of 'Oh, you are devaluing us and deskilling us' and all this stuff. But essentially the technology can help us get to the answer quicker."
He added: “There needs to be a step change… In five years more and more of our lives will become online. The police need to embrace these technologies.
"They need to start to use that big data to aid them rather than hinder them.”