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How the Investigative Process Should & Shouldn’t Change

Toni Chrabot, leading Risk Intelligence Strategist & former FBI Special Agent shares insight on adapting the investigative process to address technological advancements.

We’re all familiar with how television and movies portray dramatic scenes and heated confrontations of uniformed officers, disheveled detectives, and straight-laced-suit-wearing FBI agents knocking on doors, approaching people and gathering information. Actors and actresses convey quirky mannerisms, skepticism, and a hunger for the truth as they make investigations seem so easy. 

While Hollywood’s portrayal is distorted, it is entertaining! In reality, conducting an investigation means conducting a systematic examination of a particular situation. Sounds easy enough, but it is important the investigator have knowledge and skill, be resourceful and objective, and follow a process of gathering and documenting findings.  

As an old-school investigator, I subscribe to the motto, “If it isn’t documented, it didn’t happen.”

Time and Technology

Investigation takes time and that will never change.  Malicious activities take time and that will never change.  What has changed is the way the time is spent, and the access made possible by technology.  A little more than 10 years ago, important background work to learn patterns of behavior in daily and weekly schedules could take weeks.  

Today, much of this work can be done more quickly working online using assistive technology tools.   In order to gather background information in previous years, an investigator had to physically go to public information sources for such things as civil and criminal court records, vital information records, and property ownership.  Today, a majority of this information is online.  

Previously, to gain intelligence about the activities and schedules of persons or places of interest, an investigator had to spend hours watching and waiting.  Today, an investigator can query OSINT platforms to find information about professional and educational background, personal and professional associations, hobbies, and family. 

While social media serves as a platform for self-disclosure, penned articles, comments, and posts to blogs and forums offer unique insights to an investigator.

Community events like charity runs, golf outings, and benefits often post participant information that is readily available if you can find the sites.   An investigator may glean some or all of such information from keystrokes versus miles and time in a car or on foot.   Yet, with every step of progress, there are challenges and new opportunities. The sheer volume of information available at our fingertips is massive.  

It is easy to get lost in online searches after several hours have passed and there is still more information available.  This is where online investigation tools may help.

There are a number of platforms and services that enable searches across the different databases as well as the Deep and Dark Web.  For instance, with minimal information such as a name and city, technologies designed to assist investigations can search across thousands of websites, public information sources, blogs, forums, and news feeds. These technologies offer the capability to safely surf within the Deep and Dark Web as well as allow you to filter voluminous information into actionable intelligence.   

Alias names used to be nicknames given to someone for a reason or taken on to evade or disguise.  Now, when considering alias names, investigators have to include application usernames, gamer names, user handles, and user page names.  Some of these ‘alias’ names may be consistent or random and can create a whole new avenue of searching and identifying relevant and valuable information.  With the right assistive technology tools, the path to finding the information can be easily saved, and the information more easily managed.

Objectivity & Reporting

Determining facts and circumstances should follow a process that lends itself to objectivity, follows the evidence, and allows the story to unfold.  Objectivity requires that information be gathered from multiple avenues and evaluated with an independent lens. Interviews, documents, and information gathered from online sources combine to start painting a picture. Online searches using assistive technology typically return more results than an individual is able to find in a reasonable amount of time.  

Research and analysis and establishing a series of objectives are two critical steps in the process of investigation as they establish a factual basis and a road map.

Technology-assisted searches are inherently objective, showing associations for consideration and examination which may not have been detected or pursued otherwise.

Armed with this deeper understanding, investigators should establish a series of objectives or questions they seek to answer.  With clear objectives, investigators may begin to take deliberate, well thought out action, gathering information, collecting physical evidence, documentary evidence, and technical evidence, in an effort to determine exactly what occurred, how it occurred, how long it occurred, who was involved, and what was the motivation and intent.  

As a gum-shoe investigator who used to pound the pavement, querying public information sources, taking pictures, and asking in-person questions, I place a high value on research and analysis. Doing research and analysis takes time but is time well spent because it makes an investigator more knowledgeable. 

In today’s digital world research and analysis may be conducted much quicker than in years past. The volume of information available just a keystroke away is impressive and efficient. Open-source information and other available digital tools can provide investigators with significant background information in under an hour. Certainly, the large data aggregators provide historical and current information such as addresses, telephone numbers and other identifying data. However, with access to increasing volumes of data, it’s even more important to establish a series of objectives to guide your research.

Internet sites and Web-based platforms and applications that, when accessed, help capture the essence of who an investigator is dealing with; not only where they live but how they live and who they are associated with. 

Conclusion

At its core investigation is a process of inquiry and research. It requires strategy, skill and resourcefulness. The vast amount of available information has created new challenges in an age-old profession where the integrity of the investigator directly impacts the integrity of the investigation. 

Information comes in many forms including physical, technical and testimonial and often comes from a wide variety of sources. Today the tools available to investigators range from in-person interviews using pen and paper to video conferencing with someone located in another country.  The research tools range from searching the shelves of the library to searching the deep and dark web markets from your desktop. Investigators are limited only by their own ability to be creative and resourceful in selecting investigation tools. 

Regardless of how we gather the information, the two critical steps in the investigative process, i)Research and analysis and ii) establishing a series of objectives remain the core of a solid investigation as they establish a factual basis and a road map, driving integrity and efficiency.

Speaker Bio

Toni Chrabot, a leading Risk Intelligence Strategist, is a Brand Ambassador for Media Sonar and CEO of RISK CONFIDENCE GROUP LLC. Toni offers her insights and expertise on risk and security strategy, leveraging intelligence, and establishing policies and procedures that increase risk visibility, enhance capability, and minimize risks that may adversely impact personnel, facilities, operations, or the company brand. 

Before consulting, Toni served as an Assistant Special Agent in Charge at the FBI overseeing intelligence, criminal investigations, and crisis management programs. She also served as a crisis negotiator with the FBI’s Critical Incident Response Group and as an instructor of intelligence, interview, interrogation, and leadership communication concepts at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia.