From Kay Scarpetta to hit TV shows like CSI and NCIS, forensic science has become one of the coolest ways to fight crime. It’s a new take on the eternal good-versus-bad story. Part of the genre’s appeal is its use of sophisticated technology to give the good guys an edge they need in a world in which the criminals often seem to have the edge—and the coolest gadgets.
“Given our high levels of crime, South Africans have heightened interest in how these types of technology can be used to turn back the tide of crime, more and more of which seems to be organised,” says Nick Perkins, divisional director of Bytes Systems Integration Identity Management. “The police, ministries, border control, customs—all are in the front line of this battle and are crying out for technologies to help them. In the private sector, banks and insurance companies are in the same boat.”
One of the facts of modern life is the so called “paper trail”, and thus the need for authorities to be able to detect forged documents quickly and accurately. The legitimate makers of these documents have make huge advances in developing security features that can’t be forged, such as the use of special paper, watermarks, intaglio (the process whereby the image is incised into the surface with the ink held in the sunken lines), guilloche (an engraving technique that uses very fine detail), inks that change colour or are magnetised, holograms, security threads, fluorescent dyes and so on.
“The list of these security techniques to protect important documents like banknotes, passports, ID and stock certificates is growing by the month,” says Perkins. “Along with them, however, is the need for the forensic expert and the official at the frontline to have ways to validate a document’s authenticity. That’s where companies like Regula come in.”
Regula, a company based in Belarus, has developed a range of high-tech forensic equipment and software. Bytes is the exclusive South African representative of Regula. For example, the company’s passport readers are used at border posts to help authenticate passports and automate data input. Hotels are also using them to streamline data input into their customer relationship management and check-in systems—and in case the authorities require these records.
“It’s thus a combination of a sophisticated, networked device with advanced software, the Regula Frontline Documents System, that contains an updated database about the characteristics of all major types of official documents issued by 180 countries. A similar database, Regula Currency, provides the basis for authenticating banknotes.” says Perkins. “It’s a particularly smart approach because it doesn’t stop at document authentication, but contributes to databases of information held by the authority using the system—and we all know how powerful big data can be.”
In other words, this data about, for example, who crossed a country’s borders can be used to generate insights about not just crime but also tourism patterns or business activity.
Of course, document authentication is not everything when it comes to forensic technology. Regula also manufactures a range of inspection devices that use telescopic rods to allow video cameras to look into ventilation devices and other places where a human body can’t fit—think Mission Impossible and you’ll get the idea.
Another Regula solution that will strike a chord with South Africans is magneto-optical technology to see what alterations have been made to serial numbers on metals. This means that police can identify a vehicle identification (VIN) number that has been altered or filed down, without using destructive chemicals to do so. VIN numbers are needed to identify stolen vehicles and link them to their original owners; this technology is a major advance in helping police to secure convictions and so reduce vehicle theft.
“This is a great example of the use of science to combat crime, to everybody’s benefit,” concludes Perkins. “It also shows that some of what you see on screen is actually based on what’s going on in real life!”