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Matthew Brotherston

Career Path: Digital Forensic Unit Investigator, Northumbria Police
Location: Newcastle upon Tyne, UK

 In Year 10-11 I was given the opportunity to travel to Hong Kong to visit my uncle, who is a Criminal Lawyer and Partner in a law firm, as part of that trip he took me to a court to witness a trial taking place. This was my first ever court visit and I was intrigued with every little detail. When I got back home, I started looking into different avenues that I could go down in terms of law. However, during my A-level studies I always had an interest in IT, and this is what I chose as my main subject. When it came to Year 12 and applying for university, I was mainly focused on a computer-based degree. Whilst I was looking, I found the Northumbria Computer & Digital Forensics course which opened an avenue that I did not think was an option as it allowed me to combine my interest in law, as well as my interest in IT.

What are you doing now?Matthew Brotherston

I am now employed as a Digital Forensic Unit Investigator for Northumbria Police, where I conduct digital investigations for OIC’s (Officer in Charge) in a forensically sound manner. These investigations are in-line with the ACPO Guidelines and our ISO accreditation. The devices that I examine are anything that could be used to store digital data from a computer, mobile devices and satellite navigation systems to Smart TV’s and game consoles. After I have completed my investigation, I produce forensic reports and statements that will be used as evidence in a court of law.

I have recently passed my first certifications and I am now a Nationally Accredited Grader of Indecent Images, Cellebrite Certified Operator (CCO) (Extract data from mobile devices), and a Cellebrite Certified Physical Analyst (CCPA) (Conduct forensic examinations on mobile devices). Furthermore, I have also taken up the role of CAID SPoC (Single Point of Contact) within the unit. CAID is the Child Abuse Image Database which was launched in 2014 and is used by different forces nationwide in order to combat Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) crimes. As the CAID SPoC I have the responsibility of managing our local copy of the CAID database, ensuring that it is always fully functional for investigators in the unit, as well as ensuring that all completed CSE case work gets uploaded successfully to the CAID database. It is not just CSE case work that we investigate, there are a range of different crimes such as fraud, drugs offences, rape, voyeurism, road traffic collisions, murder, homicide, assault, breach of SOPO, computer misuse, firearms and missing persons'.

What was it about Northumbria that made you decide to study here?

I applied for other universities such as Birmingham, Teesside and Sunderland. But out of all of these universities I believe Northumbria offered the best education in the field of Digital Forensics with Northumbria offering a wide range of benefits. I had prior experience of my course as I completed a summer school, and here, I met Philip Anderson who would become my Programme Leader in the second term of my first year. The facilities where exceptional, such as the dedicated forensic lab in Pandon Building, and the University was right in the centre of Newcastle. Even though I was born in Gateshead and lived in County Durham at the time, I never really explored Newcastle fully until I started university and made new friends. Northumbria also offered a fantastic Student Wellbeing centre that was always on hand if I ever needed help. Furthermore, from the events and the summer school I attended, the staff and current students at the time were very friendly and willing to help if I had any questions about anything.

What was it like studying here?

My studies at Northumbria University included lectures, seminars and team projects. For most of my modules we would take part in two sessions a week, one lecture and one seminar. The lectures would teach us about different principles in a very forward-learning manner, whilst in the seminars we would apply what we had learnt in the lectures to actual data. Sometimes we would have the seminar first, and then the lecture would allow us to backup what we had done in the seminar. My Digital Forensics course had a lot of team projects.

What impressed you most about our academic staff?

Philip Anderson took over as the new Computer & Digital Forensic programme leader in December 2015. Even though for many years Philip was the only lecturer for Computer Forensics, he was nothing but supportive all the way through my time at university. If I ever needed anything, or had any issues, he would always say his door is open and to just come and ask. Furthermore, in final year I had a hard time as I had family matters that affected my studies, and once again Philip supported me all the way through ensuring that I was okay and keeping on top of my work.

How connected was your course with industry?

My course had so many different aspects that were connected to industry, I still find myself to this day at work going back to what I learnt at Northumbria to aid my investigations. The main aspects that I learnt at Northumbria and now use at work include Computer & Mobile Investigations, Principles and Practices of Digital Forensics, ISO, Research Methodologies, laws surrounding evidence and Advanced Mobile Techniques.

Over the course of my four years at University, there were guest lecturers from a number of organisations who came in to talk about their experiences in the field of digital forensics including a past Northumbria student (who is now my colleague at Northumbria Police), Security Risk Management, Northumbria Police and Ernst & Young.

If you took on a placement during your course how did you feel this helped you in your career/ with your studies?

Taking a placement between my second and final year of university allowed me to put to use all of the skills that I learnt during my first two years of university, and at the same time acquire new skills that could not be taught. I learnt first-hand what it was like to work in a Digital Forensic Unit at Northumbria Police. During my time at Northumbria Police I was a Student Intern Technician, my main role was working on reception booking in and out exhibits, as well as taking phone calls to answer any queries. While I was working at the DFU I also gained experience in exhibit handling, image devices, triaging devices, the use of forensic software for both computer and mobile investigations, statement writing, team building, case management and advanced forensic techniques.

What was the best thing about your course?

The best part of the course was the final year where I completed my dissertation. This allowed me to choose a topic that I found interesting and apply everything that I had learnt from my first two years of university, my placement year at Northumbria Police and my work experience in Hong Kong.

My dissertation was titled ‘An investigation into the artefacts created by disguised apps and how investigators could potentially identify and recover this data’. I got the idea from my placement year, as it was mentioned that people are always finding new ways to hide data, and this proved a challenge for investigators as an application could look like a normal calculator and turn out to have a hidden photo vault behind it. So, I applied techniques that I learnt over my years of studying and managed to complete my dissertation to a first-class standard.

How did studying at Northumbria help you achieve your career goals/give your career an edge?

My main career goal was to gain employment as a Digital Forensic Investigator in the public sector. Northumbria were instrumental in introducing me, via the placement year, to my now current employer, Northumbria Police.

Which skills/knowledge did you learn on your course that you use most now throughout your career?

The main part of a digital forensic investigation is always to uphold the continuity of evidence, and throughout my academic career ACPO (Association of Chief Police Officers) and ISO (International Standards Organisation) played a monumental role. ACPO and ISO provide forensic investigators with set principles and guidelines on just how to uphold the continuity - I find myself referring to these everyday when I am working. Digital investigations were also one of the main focuses of my course, I was taught different techniques for using different software that would allow me to find the data of a certain type. I still find myself referring to some of these during my working day. Finally, one of the vital skills that I gained was how to conduct effective research. Digital forensics is an ever-changing field and requires constant research for the development of new and more secure devices and applications. Northumbria University provided me with the tools and techniques of how to do this to a high standard.

What did you enjoy most about your time at Northumbria University?

I enjoyed the whole experience, lectures, colleagues, staff and student facilities. I remain in touch with my programme leader and regularly sign up and attend public events offered by the University.

What advice would you give somebody who is thinking of studying at Northumbria?

Take every opportunity that comes your way, Northumbria offers so much to students. If your course offers a placement year I would strongly advise to take it as it was the best thing that I ever did and played a huge part in me becoming a Digital Forensic Unit Investigator for Northumbria Police.

How would you describe your time at Northumbria in three words?

Inspiring, inclusive and exceptional.

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