How robots help Singapore’s drug crime investigators

Interview with Richard Soh, Head of Investigation Support at Singapore’s Central Narcotics Bureau.

“They thought I was crazy,” says Richard Soh, Head of Investigation Support at Singapore’s Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB). Soh is describing the reaction from some of his colleagues when he first mooted the idea of using robotics to aid drug crime investigations. Like many other government agencies in Singapore, CNB is facing a shortage of manpower due to the country’s ageing population. At the same time, drug investigators are dealing with more complex crime networks. Singapore’s proximity to drug markets, like the opium-producing Golden Triangle of North Thailand, Laos and Myanmar, makes the country susceptible to drug crime. Drug offenders in Singapore are given the death penalty, but sellers are increasingly moving to online markets on the dark web, where users are harder to track down. GovInsider caught up with Soh to find out how his team is keeping up with high-tech drug criminals, while working with limited manpower. Armed with robot helpers “I believe robotics is the way of the future to help law enforcement,” Soh says. His team is responsible for collecting and analysing crime scene evidence, and one of their tasks is to photograph the crime scene and any evidence found there. Afterwards, compiling these photos into albums typically takes 2-3 hours per album. Soh and his team developed a robotic arm to print, bind and store photos in albums, which are considered crucial for court trials. The technology has cut the time spent by the forensics team to compile these photo albums. What previously took the team hours is now being done by a robot in about 30 minutes. AIPS_CNB The robot took three years to build, and cost S$1.2 million (US$853,303), he says. There was little existing technology at the time to look to, so they had to build it “from scratch”. “To our horror, there were not many vendors in Singapore who dared to take up the challenge,” Soh says. They eventually did find one company which was open to trying it out. With the robot lending a helping hand, the forensics team can now focus on recovering and analysing evidence quicker. “We need to prioritise and we need to see if automation or technology can help us,” he says. [blockquote]“We need to prioritise and we need to see if automation or technology can help us."[/blockquote] Taking data to court Soh’s team also explored other types of technology to aid in investigations, such as data analytics. His team built an "e-diary" to catalog and identify evidence. “It’s basically to allow my [forensic team] specialists and investigators to use smart technology to document and record events at the crime scene,” Soh explains. And more importantly, Soh says, investigators can compare data on this database and make connections that could help strengthen cases in court. Investigators may search for names, aliases or mobile numbers on the database to see if they pop up in other cases. “Maybe it was connected to a case in which a [drug] customer was arrested a week before,” he says. But there is also the challenge of there being too much data for individual investigators to go through. Here, artificial intelligence can help to analyse all this data in the shortest possible time and find leads, Soh says. “We have massive tons of mounds of data. How do you break it down and find the correct one?” Suiting up with the right skills When he first set up the Forensic Response Team, or FORT, in 2008, Soh’s team just had three members. Now, there are 16, and Soh does “what is necessary” to expand his officers’ skillsets, he says. “Along the way, we discovered that the specialists like that. They want to train in as many areas as possible,” Soh shares. As a crime scene has a diverse set of forensic evidence, ranging from fingerprints and DNA to video, it needs a correspondingly diverse set of skills to process them, he explains. Digital forensics is one new skill that CNB’s investigators are picking up. It involves the extraction of digital data from a wide spectrum of digital devices, such as computers, CCTV and dashboard cameras. In Soh’s investigations, mobile phones, laptops, computers and video cameras are more prevalent, he says. “The unique thing about our team, as compared to the rest of the departments, is that our specialists are trained in both physical and digital forensics,” he says. This is a necessity because of “a lack of manpower,” he adds. One step ahead of the bad guys Soh and his team will always be on the lookout for new technologies, because the criminals are too. Drug traffickers have gadgets that help to conceal or even erase their crimes, Soh says. “If you want to be ahead of the bad guys, you need to develop something that they can’t develop,” he says. His unit has a research team, and also works with polytechnics and universities to develop new technologies. For instance, it is working with students and professors from Temasek Polytechnic’s School of Digital Forensics to devise prototypes. The latest one was a shield to block signals from reaching smartphones recovered from crime scenes, preventing criminals from remotely erasing evidence from the phone. “You need to know what is out there,” he says. Officials introducing new techniques will also need to overcome criticism from within the bureau, and Soh faced a fair share of it when introducing his robotics idea. “I still remember when the idea was being floated. It was rejected two or three times,” he says. In a job as sensitive as crime investigation—it can be a matter of life and death—criticism is necessary, and results in better outcomes. Soh advises officials to be willing to be take this feedback and “go back to the drawing board”. “Anticipate what kind of questions will be asked, but more importantly, get people involved,” he says. With the robotics project, for instance, Soh was able to prove the manpower and cost savings by building prototypes first. “We did a lot of testing, and it eventually won the critics over,” he says. Back to school After 16 years at the Bureau, Soh is not afraid to go back to the drawing board himself. Alongside his job, he is studying part-time for a Master’s Degree in science and technology—and his exams were just last week. How did he do? “Hopefully, it will be good,” he laughs. On a more serious note, he adds, “I believe that public officers can embrace innovation and technology, same as in the private sector.” While crime scene investigation isn’t always as glamorous as portrayed in Hollywood, it is yet another area facing digital disruption. Embracing new techniques and technologies will help investigators all over the world to be even more effective at what they do — catching bad guys. This is a series of profiles on Singapore’s public service officers in conjunction with the Public Service Division’s ‘Public Service Week 2017 – Towards a Bold and Innovative Public Service’, held on 15-21 May.