Watch, Listen and Learn: How a Partnership is Building AI to Tackle Crime

“Watch, listen and learn!” This was the advice given to me on my first shift with the Australian Federal Police (AFP) twenty-three years ago.  That advice still resonates all these years later.  Operating in a criminal environment that quickly connects and scales through the use of technology and is increasingly defined by the use of end-to-end encryption and anonymising technologies, law enforcement in Australia faces growing challenges in its efforts to keep Australians safe.  But it is exactly this challenge along with a willingness to watch, listen and learn that has forged a growing partnership between the Australian Federal Police and Monash University.

Back in 2015 I was lucky enough to have a meeting with Dr Campbell Wilson in a small office at Monash’s Caulfield Campus.  The meeting was organised by Dr Janis Dalins, an AFP member and then Monash PhD candidate.  He thought I may be interested in some of the thoughts Campbell had on how the fields of computer science and data science may be able to help law enforcement.  It was this conversation that made me realise that by joining community safety challenges with some of the best and brightest minds in Australia we had an opportunity to make a difference.  Four years (and many conversations) later, we opened the Artificial Intelligence for Law Enforcement and Community Safety (AiLECS) Lab. So what have we done since then?

For many years the issue of child sexual abuse has taken a huge toll on our community, most notably on the victims.  As such, tackling this crime type has been a priority for the AFP and law enforcement more broadly.  The partnership between the AFP and Monash has been working on developing algorithms capable of identifying and classifying Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM).  The AiLECS Lab has been able to progressively develop and improve these algorithms to a point where they can now be used in AFP operations.  A key contributor to the success of this work has been the use of a data airlock built by the AFP and CSIRO’s Data61 and is now hosted by Monash University.  The data airlock enables the AFP to share sensitive data such as CSAM and allow Monash researchers to use it without them ever having to see it. Dr Gregory Rolan is now spearheading the development of a new, enhanced version of the data airlock that will hopefully see even greater benefits for the Lab and other research and law enforcement partners into the future.

It has been the success of the CSAM research to date that has also seen a partnership forged with Westpac through their Safer Children, Safer Communities Program. This partnership has seen additional funding injected into the Lab.  This funding has been invaluable, allowing the Lab to bring on more talent, with Soudeh Kasiri and Dr Hanxian He recently joining the team, bringing in some great experience and exciting new ideas that will advance this work even further.

For the past three years, through Operation Ironside, the AFP has had a window into the world of organised crime after infiltrating a dedicated encrypted communications platform called AN0M.  What this provided was the holy grail for law enforcement in the modern-day environment, unencrypted content.  It was the lawful collection of millions of unencrypted messages that over time provided invaluable insight into how criminal syndicates operate in a global environment.  The AiLECS lab, working closely with the AFP’s Digital Analytics and Enrichment Team, provided insights as to how social network analysis, when applied to this unique data set, could assist the AFP in identifying key players within criminal networks and help target disruption activities to have maximum impact on the criminal environment.  

Additionally, with the volume of content being received, Dr Janis Dalins kicked off some work to help the AFP to identify firearms in images through the use of computer vision. This work is helping the AFP to better identify and target firearms that are in the hands of serious and organised crime figures, with 128 illegal firearms being seized to date.  With such a positive start and some good runs on the board, this work will continue to be a focus for further research.

So what does the future hold? Simon Sinek probably said it best when he tweeted “A small team, dedicated to a cause bigger than themselves, can achieve absolutely anything.” The AiLECS Lab, as an authentic partnership between the AFP and Monash, needs to be ambitious. The Lab has already taken its first steps into bringing law enforcement, academia and industry together around community safety imperatives. These are positive strides in looking at the ethical use of AI in a law enforcement context. However, the question now lies in how it enters the wider conversation around the use of AI in law enforcement, in such a way as to build understanding and trust whilst developing leading edge capabilities for community protection.  Can this be achieved? Only time will tell as we watch, listen and learn..

Commander Doug Boudry
Crime Command
Australian Federal Police

March 2022