The Spanish Observatory of Computer Crimes (OEDI) logo. (Credit: OEDI)

The Spanish Observatory of Computer Crimes (OEDI) was born out of the need to publicize the growing problem of computer crime in Spain. It seeks to inform society about current cybercrime legislation and promote formal complaints to relevant entities. OEDI is also part of the International Observatory of Computer Crime (INTOCC), the largest union of computer crime observatories in the world, which is dedicated to providing objective and scientific information on how cybercrime affects communities globally. OEDI and eight other observatories help INTOCC in its work to study, analyze, and prevent cybercrime. OEDI is based in Elche, a town by the Mediterranean Sea, which is located in the Province of Alicante in Spain. The observatory also has offices in Aspe, Villajoyosa, Villena, Elche, and Bigastro, and is looking to expand further in the country.

In today’s hyper-technological society, cybercrime is rampant and global — and the COVID-19 pandemic has only helped to fuel it. A recent study found that nearly 330 million people in 10 countries had experienced cybercrime in the first year of the pandemic. And more than half of young women and girls surveyed by the World Wide Web Foundation said they’ve experienced online abuse that has impacted their emotional and/or physical well-being — and that was before the global health crisis.

“OEDI works hand-in-hand with the police, with different countries, and very directly with victims. That gives us a tremendous perspective because we not only work on the academic aspect but also deal directly with the street-level aspect to get to know the nature of the crime and its victims.”

Cybercrime includes digital gender violence against women, such as stalking and controlling; the abuse of children and adolescents through child pornography or any form of pedophilia; and identity theft and malicious hacking. OEDI is on a mission to raise awareness throughout society about the technological risks that enable cybercrime and allow it to thrive, the solutions law enforcement agencies and other organizations can use to combat those risks, and new methods that criminals are employing to reach their victims in the digital sphere.

President and founder of OEDI, Salvador Samper Alenda. (Credit: twitter.com)

“We’re trying to reach a common understanding about cybercrime,” says Salvador Samper Alenda, president and founder of OEDI and the founder of INTOCC. “OEDI works hand-in-hand with the police, with different countries, and very directly with victims. That gives us a tremendous perspective because we not only work on the academic aspect but also deal directly with the street-level aspect to get to know the nature of the crime and its victims.”

Technology — including tools for collection, review, analysis, and managing Digital Intelligence — also plays a critical role in supporting OEDI’s mission. (Digital Intelligence is the data collected and preserved from digital sources and data types [smartphones, computers, and the Cloud] and the process by which agencies collect, review, analyze, manage, and obtain insights from this data to run their investigations more efficiently.) But OEDI has found that driving its mission forward includes educating the people and organizations it works with about the usefulness of digital solutions and “the absolute need” for digital forensics experts to have swift access to them to expand investigations, help victims, and solve crimes faster, Samper says.

OEDI has found that its work to help stop and prevent digital gender violence is a powerful example for communicating how digital forensics works, how digital evidence is collected, and how reports presenting that evidence are produced. “We have to start with a problem that society understands and that affects business, politics, the judicial system — everything,” Samper says. “If we don’t start with the basics, we’re never going to get to the next level, which is for people to understand complex cyber threats like ransomware.”

Accessing a “Hive” of Digital Evidence and Generating Insights

Underscoring the importance of using digital forensics solutions and tapping the expertise of digital forensics experts in investigations comes naturally to Samper. Both he and his colleague at OEDI, Guillermo Raya, are digital forensics examiners who also once worked for Cellebrite.

Samper says the digital forensics staff at OEDI uses an array of solutions in their everyday work, including Cellebrite UFED Touch2 for lawfully accessing data from digital devices, and Cellebrite UFED Cloud for lawfully accessing cloud-based evidence, like social media data and instant messaging, and collecting, preserving, and analyzing it. Samper says his team combines the information and insights they gather with those solutions with other data OEDI has collected in a database called Colmena (or “Hive”).

Solutions such as Cellebrite UFED Touch 2 and Cellebrite UFED Cloud allow digital forensics staff at OEDI to help solve crimes by lawfully accessing data from digital devices. (Credit: OEDI)

OEDI built the Colmena database, which uses a proprietary algorithm that correlates all the data it receives about a case, including when a victim of digital gender violence first reports an incident through OEDI’s innovative “Puntos ATV” program, which is described in the next section.

Samper says digital forensics staff working with the Colmena database can dig into crime statistics and predictions data and ask questions such as, “Which mobile device brands are most plagued by spyware? And which accounts are most targeted—Gmail or Hotmail?” The database can also produce a trend line tracing a crime pattern between a digital aggressor and a victim and generate an automatic report to present that information. Samper says that with Colmena, OEDI staff have reduced the amount of time they spend generating reports by 500%.

Providing “Points of Early Attention” for Victims to Access Critical Help

Gender violence is often challenging to prove if clear physical evidence of abuse is absent. But digital gender violence creates a trail of digital evidence — including abusive social media messages, spyware, and even digital images that show physical abuse — that can help investigators charge the aggressors and prosecutors send them to jail. Most important, uncovering that trail can help victims of digital gender violence and related abuse get the help they need faster and avoid revictimization.

In November 2020, OEDI launched a pilot program in Bigastro called “Points of Early Attention for Victims of Digital Gender Violence” (Puntos de Atención Temprana a Víctimas de Violencia de Género Digital, or Puntos ATV for short). This early counseling service for victims of digital gender violence is available through various locations, or ATV points, such as public administration centers, police stations, and social services agencies.

“We managed to pinpoint the photos to an exact geolocation, establishing that the victim was injured at a specific address… [which] was an important breakthrough not only because of the conviction but also because the judge recognized the value of providing early attention to victims of digital gender abuse.”

At an appointed time and location arranged with help from law enforcement or other resources, the forensic staff with OEDI will meet with victims to collect and certify digital evidence from their devices, with their consent, and create expert reports on the findings — at no cost to the victims. “We run a mobile lab unit,” says Samper. “Two of our digital forensic examiners will travel by car to the designated location, taking all the necessary equipment with them, including our own technology like Colmena and Cellebrite’s tools, to examine victims’ mobile devices and create the reports.”

OEDI’s pilot program, called Puntos ATV, provides early counseling service for victims of digital gender violence.  (Credit: OEDI)

Within the first six months of the Punto ATV pilot program, an expert report from OEDI, based in part on digital evidence gathered using Cellebrite’s technology, helped lead to the conviction of an aggressor who had physically assaulted a woman. The digital evidence in OEDI’s report included WhatsApp messages and a record of calls the victim had received from the aggressor who had used a hidden number. Also included in the report were images of the victim’s bruises following the assault. “We managed to pinpoint the photos to an exact geolocation, establishing that the victim was injured at a specific address,” says Samper.

“We run a mobile lab unit. Two of our digital forensic examiners will travel by car to the designated location, taking all the necessary equipment with them, including our own technology like Colmena and Cellebrite’s tools, to examine victims’ mobile devices and create the reports.”

“This case was an important breakthrough not only because of the conviction but also because the judge recognized the value of providing early attention to victims of digital gender abuse,” Samper explains. “And we got a speedy, 17-page ruling that set a very important precedent in the law of Alicante — that digital evidence must be certified as forensically sound to be admissible in court. The judge did not admit the aggressor’s digital evidence in this case because, unlike the victim’s report, it hadn’t been certified and couldn’t be proved to be valid.”

The Puntos ATV program is now available in OEDI’s offices in Aspe, Bigastro, Elche, Villajoyosa and Villena. Samper says OEDI hopes to see its pioneering program spread throughout Europe and internationally, as well.

Analyzing Digital Evidence to Identify Victims at Risk of Committing Suicide

When OEDI team members with the Puntos ATV mobile unit are in the field working with victims of digital gender violence, speed is essential in gathering digital evidence of their abuse. But creating reports that can help convict aggressors is just one important outcome of this work. Just as critical is determining whether victims are considering hurting themselves because they’re so traumatized from the abuse and humiliation they’ve suffered.

“Our algorithms provide us the statistical probability of a victim contemplating suicide. We can use that insight to take different measures, quickly, to prevent the victim from actually following through.”

Evidence gathered from devices using Cellebrite technology, along with OEDI’s algorithms and database help convict aggressors while also preventing self-harm among the victims. (Credit: OEDI)

Here again, OEDI uses algorithms in its Colmena database to analyze information collected during interviews with victims and the digital evidence gathered from their devices using Cellebrite’s technology. “Our algorithms provide us the statistical probability of a victim contemplating suicide,” says Samper. “We can use that insight to take different measures, quickly, to prevent the victim from actually following through.”

Samper says what he finds especially rewarding about his work with OEDI and INTOCC is “the ability to make things possible when you’ve been told there’s no hope.” He explains, “The easiest thing in the whole world is to just give up — the system can get so big that it invites you to do that. Give up because it’s not worth your time, because it’s an impossible case, because your work won’t lead to any results. But what’s certain is that when you do nothing, the results will be zero. And when you start working from zero, the results can always be more.”