News Irish News

Sunday 22 September 2019

Hackers can manipulate digital evidence for court, warns expert

Stock photo
Stock photo
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

Digital evidence could be manipulated and used to stage crimes or affect trials, cyber-psychologist Mary Aiken has warned.

Dr Aiken, who is an adjunct associate professor at UCD, spoke at a Bar of Ireland conference about the dangers she fears could be posed to the criminal justice system by maliciously manufactured evidence.

"I get very worried when I see convictions based on cell tower pings and mobile phone text messages, when both of these are eminently hackable," she said.

Such forms of evidence have proved crucial in a number of high-profile cases, such as those of convicted murderers Graham Dwyer and Joe O'Reilly.

But Dr Aiken said the world was moving towards a place where more and more people have the skill sets to manipulate such evidence.

"We all know about the staging of real world crime scenes. What we have got to factor in is the potential for cyber staging, the cyber manipulation of evidence," she said.

"I think going forward reasonable doubt can be introduced around the digital evidence.

"I would hate to see prosecutions that were solely reliant on that form of evidence, particularly as you have this exponential curve in terms of technology and skills."

The Bar of Ireland's 'Defamation Nation' conference was held in Malaga, Spain at the weekend.

The legal conference also heard warnings that jury trials are being put in jeopardy by the internet and social media.

A number of speakers raised the difficulties posed for the criminal courts by social media commentary and other online material, as seen during the Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding rape trial in Belfast and the Jobstown water protest trial in Dublin.


Vincent Crowley, chairman of national newspaper body NewsBrands, warned that the Belfast and Jobstown trials were put "in jeopardy" by "unchecked social media comment".

Both trials attracted unprecedented levels of potentially prejudicial commentary online and frequent warnings had to be issued by the judges involved that jurors stay away from social media. In the Belfast case, after the defendants were acquitted, defence lawyers complained that several days of the trial were lost due to problems thrown up by social media material.

That trial also prompted calls for measures to be taken on both sides of the Border to curb the threat of social media to criminal cases.

Former attorney general Michael McDowell, a senator and barrister, described jury trials as "one of our lasting civil liberties" and said he didn't trust the judiciary "over time to be fair triers of criminal law in the main".

But he added: "Jury trial is imperilled by the internet. Nobody should be under any illusions about that."

However, Liam McCollum QC, chairman of the Bar of Northern Ireland, told the conference that people could have confidence in the North's legal system.

He said that the Belfast rape case was decided on the evidence put before the jury and nothing else.

"The truth of the matter is, and this is something we can all take comfort in and have confidence in, the legal system actually dealt with it," said Mr McCollum, a highly experienced prosecutor.

"The case was not decided about text messages, it wasn't decided about WhatApps, it wasn't decided about what was on the internet. It was decided upon the evidence that was given in the court.

"We have to hope that will remain the case going forward because that is what the legal system is all about."

Irish Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News