Author Archives: Martino Jerian

An Interview with Andrew McDonnell from the HM Revenue & Customs of the UK Government

Andy is one of the most respected forensic video analysts in the UK. In this interview, he shares his point of view on forensic video analysis and the industry at large. I want to highlight his very insightful observation about the situation we have been fighting since our beginning: “A widespread fundamental misunderstanding about the complexity of audio-visual forensics work.”
Enjoy the read!

Martino Jerian, Amped Software CEO and Founder

Andrew, tell us a bit about yourself. What is your background and your current role at HM Revenue & Customs?

I’ve been around a long time. My career started in 1983 with military communications engineering in the Royal Air Force where I did seven years, four of which were spent in Germany which I loved.

I then moved into broadcast television where I spent twelve years managing technical teams such as TV camera crews, sound and vision engineers, directors, production assistants, technicians and video editors for a number of companies including ITV, Sky TV and a number of outside broadcast companies. I used to design and build TV studios, galleries, transmission facilities and OB trucks.

Following redundancy from one job I saw a role advertised in the police, managing teams of audio-visual forensic specialists, so that opened up my current career where I’ve spent 16 years in West Yorkshire Police – and I’ve been working with HM Revenue & Customs for two years now.

What made you decide to enter the field of multimedia forensics?

In all honesty, it never occurred to me that such a career existed. Having spent time in the TV world I had no idea that the police used video (and audio, photography and CCTV) in a forensic way.

It was only when I switched career that I realized there was a whole new world of opportunities beyond TV, and I have genuinely never looked back. The big difference is the feeling that you’re doing something worthwhile, using technical skills in a way that makes a difference in society. That sense of civic duty is something I share with many colleagues, and this is why we love what we do.

What would you say are the biggest challenges with video evidence during investigations and when presenting it in court?

In the UK policing world, there are two major challenges. The first, sadly, is financial. Not having budgets to properly train and develop staff, invest in the latest technology, or provide sufficient resources to meet the demands are all very real and difficult problems for police managers.

The second is volumes of data. Video evidence is everywhere these days. From CCTV in public and private spaces, to doorbell cameras, dash-cams and helmet cameras on cyclists, to body-worn video on police and other officials, mobile phone videos from members of the public and social media content. And with image quality continuing to improve, HD and UHD video is resulting in huge demands on data storage and processing.

Since changing jobs, I have found that within HMRC, unlike many in the wider law-enforcement community, there is a genuine desire to invest in staff, provide training and development and provide the tools we need to do our job to a world-class standard.

What would you say are the main forensic challenges surrounding image validation? How can they be addressed?

Keeping up with technology is always a challenge. It always amazes me how every new technology can be very quickly picked up and utilized in criminal ways, often before it becomes mainstream technology. 

In the current climate, social media imagery, for example, is so difficult to validate. With the growth in augmented reality and AI/machine learning capability this is becoming an ever more difficult challenge.

I think the real problems for law enforcement are yet to come and will only be addressed when new tools are developed, which leverage emerging technologies in a different and innovative way.

To achieve this, two things are required:  real and significant investment in audio-visual forensics, and genuine recognition of the problems with a desire to solve them.

In your opinion, how important is it that digital forensic techniques and tools are based on the scientific method?

I think it’s essential. The scientific method not only provides rigor and quality assurance, but it also provides gravitas.

Future investment in crime fighting will come from the need to tackle digital crime: cyber, cyber-enabled, digital forensics, audio-visual forensics, mobile phone work, etc. It’s a growth area. This investment will only happen if the forensic community is seen to be operating in a professional environment and taken seriously.

What are the most important aspects of training and education for forensic image and video analysts?

Any manager of a forensic department must look at what the job involves. What are the tasks that need to be performed, and to what standard? This is the starting point. It enables managers to identify what skills their staff need and to recognize where the training should be delivered to fill any skill gaps.

Training should be based on business needs and on competency requirements. It is critical that the outcome of training is that staff become competent at what they do and this needs to be demonstrated by having training that is independently accredited.

We cannot produce a set of validation tests and documents that cover every single possible scenario of how a piece of media might be handled in a forensic workflow.

But we can give the practitioners the tools and knowledge they need to make informed and professional decisions. That way we can trust they will make good judgment decisions based on sound rationale and be confident they have approached each task correctly.

How do you think the world of image and video forensics will change over the next few years?

There will be more video of higher quality which will need to be managed, stored, processed, and presented without adding delays to the workflows. Processing and analyzing big data will continue to be a growing challenge. CCTV image quality will improve bringing great opportunities to make the best use of forensic tools.

I can see facial recognition being a big new area for us. I am optimistic that audio-visual forensics will be taken more seriously as forensic science and will become mainstream.

Recently there have been a few changes in the UK landscape. Digital Evidence Management Systems (DEMS) are being implemented in several forces and the new version of Digital Imaging and Multimedia Procedure (v.3.0) has been published. What challenges does this pose to the use of video evidence, especially in relation to CCTV? How does this affect our daily work with video evidence?

It has always been the case that video/CCTV evidence arrives in many formats. Once under the control of law enforcement, the chain of evidence must begin, and the integrity of the evidence must be maintained. This is true for all evidence, be that a knife, fingerprint lift, or CCTV file.

National guidance for video evidence states an evidential Master must be created using W.O.R.M. (Write Once, Read Many) media such as CD/DVD data disk or a secure server. If another copy of that video is required, a Working Copy can be produced. It is important that the Working Copy remains forensically the same as the Master, bit for bit.

If I alter the nature or content of that file (such as creating a shortened clip of the video, creating a still image from one of the video frames, enhancing the video, or converting it to a different file format) I now have a product which is different. This is not a Working Copy, it is a new derivative, which must be defined as a new Master. That’s the fundamental basic rule.

Now, with that in mind, let’s look at – a scenario. If I take a proprietary CCTV file (.dat as an example) and upload that to a police Digital Evidence Management System (DEMS), I would expect the DEMS to hold a Master copy of the .dat file (and perhaps a Working Copy of it).

A smart DEMS would also recognise the .dat format and transcode it to a playable .mp4 file which can then be viewed in a common video playback app such as Windows Media Player. In doing so it would have created a new Master (the MP4 file is significantly different from the .dat file, so is a new Master). This is also true of practitioners who transcode the video – they should understand that they have changed the content of the file and have now created a new Master.

The problem is that many DEMS systems and many practitioners will transcode the file to create a playable format but store it as a Working Copy of the original, rather than a new Master.

This happens because there is a widespread fundamental misunderstanding about the complexity of audio-visual forensics work. If we are to avoid legal challenges in court the integrity and authenticity of our evidence must be secure. System manufacturers and senior decision makers in this field need to understand the technical challenges, or at least take advice from the technical experts.

How did you learn about Amped Software?

While contributing to a UK national CCTV steering group we recognized that there was no “standard” for AV training.

With the emergence of ISO 17025, we recognized that we needed to set the framework for training and competency. This led me and others to develop the national CCTV competency framework and, as a result, identifying training providers who could deliver high quality training to UK practitioners.

This in turn led me to Amped FIVE as a tool that could provide what we needed in terms of forensic processing and analysis of video files.

Why did you choose Amped Software products?

We use a wide range of tools, depending on the nature of the task at hand.  What we do like about Amped FIVE and Amped DVRConv is the close-knit community that exists around them.  

There is a strong professional community that shares ideas, suggestions, methods and generally helps each other out. The company is also keen to evolve and develop and in doing so really does listen to its users and takes on board their requirements and ideas for development.

Do you have any interesting stories or success cases related to Amped Software products?

We often find that we can pose a question about a particular CCTV file format (as we know there are over 3,500 CCTV systems in the UK marketplace and that number increases weekly).

Usually, in a very short timeframe, we receive a response back which is either “we’ve had that before, try this solution…” or “send us some details and a sanitized image and we’ll reverse-engineer”.

When you are not busy looking at digital evidence, what do you like doing in your spare time? 

I love walking in the hills around Yorkshire (we have five national parks close by) with friends. I also enjoy taking my wife and children on cycling trips. Other than that, depending on the amount of time available I enjoy reading biographies, cinema, restaurants, international travel, photography, and single malt whisky.

 

Announcing Subscriptions and Bundles for all Products

We have exciting news regarding product licensing.

As of today, all our software products are available with an annual subscription license, as an alternative to the perpetual licensing we’ve always had. 

Different organizations have different needs, budget availability, and purchasing processes, so we thought that adding another option would be the best way to ease and speed up the acquisition process.

So, how do you choose which model is best for your case? We have prepared a simple comparison chart.

Perpetual LicenseSubscription License
PriceHigher initial cost
Lower annual SMS cost (optional)
Fixed cost per year
What happens at expirationThe software continues to work but access to updates and support is lostThe software stops working
What happens when renewing after the expirationMissing time must be compensatedRestarts from the purchase date

But this is just the beginning. We know that purchasing within government or large organizations is not always as easy as it should be. What are the main issues?

Very often, the end user is not the decision-maker nor actually part of the purchasing process. It’s not always clear what number of licenses are needed months before the purchase would hopefully be finalized, and sometimes not even the products that are needed. And let’s not forget about the difficulties of getting training (especially in some countries), which is an essential part of what we do.

So we created three bundles, which cover typical use cases for our customers in order to help them easily overcome some of these issues.

  • With the Amped Ultimate Team Subscription, you get all our products (Amped Replay, Amped DVRConv, Amped FIVE, Amped Authenticate) and Online Training classes at a fixed and convenient annual price. 
  • With the Amped FIVE Team Subscription, you get 4 seats of Amped FIVE and 2 Online Training seats per year.
  • With the Amped Replay Team Subscription, you get 20 seats of Amped Replay and a private Online Training session for up to 10 investigators, every year.

These bundles do not only simplify your choices but offer huge savings over single licenses and training classes.

Interested? Check out our bundles page or contact us for more information or to receive a quote.

Introducing Temporary Work-From-Home Licenses, Online Training, and Digital Licenses

Today we are announcing important news to help our users and distributors to better cope with our software acquisition, activation, and learning processes during this difficult time. We do hope that everyone is staying safe, and we are thankful for the important work that you are doing in serving your communities.

TEMPORARY WORK-FROM-HOME LICENSES

With a lot of our users working from home, many are not able to access their workstation or move the dongle and installation to a computer they are using at home. During this time we want to help however we can in balancing solving cases and keeping safe.  For this reason, we are offering to our users who have a license with an active SMS (software maintenance and support) plan, the possibility to further install our software on other machines and activate it with a temporary digital license that will work until the end of May.

In order to request a work-from-home license, please contact our technical support, indicating your dongle serial and the email address of the user who needs access to the license.

If you are not a user yet, or your SMS has expired, don’t worry, feel free to contact us anyways and we’ll evaluate options to best help your organization.

ONLINE TRAINING

In order to continue to provide training to our users during this current state of emergency where travel is impossible, we are very excited to announce that we are now offering official online training sessions. The training will be live with one of our experienced trainers. We have already added the first classes to our training schedule, with more coming soon.

DIGITAL LICENSES

Effective immediately, we are providing digital licenses for all our products. Digital licenses will be our default option going forward.

Currently, most of our products have been protected by a USB dongle. However, shipping a physical component for our software is becoming increasingly complicated and risky at the moment:

  • We need to ship the parcel. We are working from home, but some of us need to go to the office to prepare the dongle shipment and to deliver it to the courier. If there are no alternatives, this can be done, but I’d rather have our colleagues stay at home for their safety and the safety of our community. Please note that Italy now is in full lock-down, most industrial and commercial activities must be closed if employees are not working from home, and we are allowed to go out only for strict necessities or emergencies.
  • The customer (end user and/or distributor) needs to receive the parcel. Similar risks as above for our customers. With millions of people around the world starting to work from home, finding someone available to pick up the parcel is another complication.
  • The shipping may be delayed. People can’t go out, so they are buying a lot online and couriers are overwhelmed with the amount of merchandise they need to move, clearly causing further risks for their personnel. We see that several of our shipments are experiencing quite a bit of delay, compared to our normally very efficient turnaround time.
  • Users need to work from home. Several of our users are currently working from home, and accessing the dongle or the computer they left in the office can be a problem if they need to use our products.

It has been a rather sudden decision, but for all the reasons above we decided to switch to digital licenses as the default license for the time being. What does it mean?

  • We don’t need to ship anything. Everything will be accessible electronically.
  • Faster access to your license. As soon as we process the order, you should be able to download and install the license.
  • Installation or activation wherever you are. Whether you are in the office, on the field, or at home, you can download and activate the software without the need for the dongle as long as you have available seats on your license.

Please note that USB dongle licenses will still be available as an option, but only if explicitly requested when placing an order: by default we will provide digital licenses. If you really need the dongle, you need to clearly specify this request and you should be prepared for the fact that shipping can take longer than usual for the next weeks or months.

As usual, if you have any questions on digital licenses, temporary work-from-home licenses, or need more information about online training, please feel free to contact us.

Be safe everybody.

We Are OK!

A group photo taken during our latest meeting, with everybody from home!

A lot of our users, partners, and friends reached out to ask how we are doing during this difficult moment with COVID-19 in Italy. Thank you for thinking and caring about us, this means a lot to us. In general, the situation is quite surreal. We are allowed to go out just for groceries and other necessary items, or to go to work, where working from home is not possible. 

At Amped, we are doing everything possible to keep us, our families and communities safe.

Even before the increase of cases and the complete lock-down, as a precautionary measure, I asked everybody to work from home as much as possible. We have all been working from home for three weeks already. At the moment, everyone in Amped and our families are OK, and we are doing everything possible to keep it this way. They say the peak in Italy will be this week, so in our “virtual” office we are all keeping in touch with frequent calls and funny memes in chat, just to keep it easy in this difficult time.

Because of all of this, we had to put on hold various events and training sessions that were already scheduled. We are monitoring the situation for the ones coming up in the next months, but for now, and for later, our main priority is the health and safety of our team and our users.

We know our users were excited to attend the Amped User Day we scheduled in Birmingham, UK on September 21, but unfortunately, we decided that it would be better for everyone if we also postponed this event for a later, safer time. We will let you know when we set a new date for it.

Other than that, we are fully functional: software development, sales operations, and technical support operations are working as usual. If we have conference calls, you might hear some children screaming in the background… but that’s about it.

While I hope it will not happen, I am truly afraid the virus will spread in many other countries like it did in Italy. Please be careful and do not underestimate the risks and the recommendations provided by your local governments.

Children all over Italy are drawing rainbows with this message to hang on their balconies or windows, spreading the message of hope and reassurance that “everything will be fine”, “andrà tutto bene”. My daughters drew this one and send you all lots of rainbows!

Be safe everybody, #andratuttobene #everythingwillbefine

Take care,
Martino

Your Input is Needed for Windows XP Support! Keep or Kill?

One thing we are very proud of here at Amped is the efficiency and compatibility of our products. Although you will get the most out of Amped FIVE with a nice performing machine, you can also use it on any modern, and often not so modern, laptop. A few years ago we were able to deliver a decent training course in a location where users had a Pentium laptop with 1 GB of RAM. Definitely not something we really recommend, but it somewhat worked with most of our examples.

Most of our products are offered in the same installer in both 32 bit and 64 bit versions.  Despite the discontinuation of Windows XP in 2014, 12 years after its launch, we are still trying to support it in our products, to guarantee maximum compatibility of our products with any system.

Over the years, however, keeping the compatibility with Windows XP has been an increasing struggle and every time we need to update external third-party libraries or tools some new issues related to Windows XP support pop up. We are at a point where we are not sure anymore if it’s worth still spending our precious development time towards this need. We hope none of you still need to use Windows XP as the main working machine, but there may be some cases where this is still helpful (for example controlled codec installation on a Windows XP virtual machine for legacy proprietary video formats). Furthermore, using Windows XP has become very dangerous since security updates are not even available anymore.

So, the question is, should we kill Windows XP support in Amped FIVE (and our other products) or there is a reason to keep it?

Please help us with this one-minute survey, or contact us if you want to discuss this with us.

We appreciate your feedback!

Amped Replay: The Enhanced Video Player for Modern Policing

Today we have launched Amped Replay, our enhanced video player for modern policing.

You can find all the usual details in the press release and more info on the product webpages. What I want to add here, though, is some background information about the why and how of this new product.

I believe Amped Replay may be the most important product launch since the initial Amped FIVE release in 2008. Maybe even more than that, since it widens our scope as a company. Continue reading

Using Enhanced Images in Court

I recently testified in court as a forensic image and video expert and, as is sometimes the case, the use of some filters to enhance images was questioned. As I have written before, there is some processing that should be entirely avoided, since it lacks accuracy and repeatability. For example, we should avoid techniques which add new information relying on data obtained by a training set, or techniques which have a random component.

Some years ago, there was a school of thought that said, only classical image processing techniques available for the analog photography can be applied to digital photography in the forensic context. What are the risks of applying the wrong processing? We are not interested in having a “pleasant” image, we are concerned about extracting information from it. The risks of wrong processing are:

  • Removing existing information: for example, removing the grain in a dark image can remove also important details.
  • Adding new information: for example, creating or amplifying image artifacts which may be misinterpreted as a real detail.

In this reasoning, we are not referring to details at the pixel level, but at the image semantic content. In general, if I resize an image, I add a lot of new pixels but if the processing is correct I am not adding any new relevant information.

It’s important to understand that most of the image processing techniques present a compromise: I enhance something at the expense of damaging something else. For example, if I lighten an image to show better a dark part, it’s very likely to lose details in the parts of the image that are already bright enough.

For this reason, it’s very difficult, in general, to say which techniques are good and which techniques are bad. Their applicability must be related to the specific case and the parameters used. Filters are just tools, and as such, they can be used in the right way, obtaining better images, or in the wrong way, damaging the image quality or presenting wrong information.

Because of this, it’s important not to blindly apply different enhancement and restoration filters, but to apply them in order to correct a specific defect. Similarly, the tuning of their parameters must be consistent with the amount of defect I want to correct. Abusing the filters can create images which are much worse than the original.

It is therefore important, as I’ve said many times, to work with experts who have specific experience in the forensic image and video analysis field. Who know what to do, and how to identify what has been done incorrectly.

A lot of pressure may be put on the processing done by the experts, but most people ignore that there are many other processing and possible issues happening during the image acquisition and visualization phases.

A lot of processing happens in the camera itself, from CCTV to smartphones. Unless raw image pictures are used, and this is very rare, the value of the pixels in an image are hugely dependent on the processing and encoding which automatically happens inside the device to obtain the ratio between image quality and technical limitations that the producer wished to obtain.

And then, even to simply visualize the image, there’s a lot going on under the hood. Different software can decode the image in a slightly different way which can enormously impact the final result, and a lot of image processing happens on the graphics card of the PC, on the screen, or on a projector. Just play with the brightness of the projector to realize how much the visible information in an image can be impacted by such simple tuning.

There is then the most critical part of the processing: our eyes and our brain. Different people see and want to see different things in the same image. Analyzing things in an objective and unbiased way is often very difficult unless you can measure things numerically. And in fact, avoiding and limiting the various types of biases are one of the most important aspects of forensic science currently studied.

This article, written by Martino Jerian, was originally published in Lawyer Monthly magazine. Click here for the published article. 

We just turned 10 – but there’s still so much more to do!

Today is the 10th anniversary of the foundation of Amped Software. In fact, I officially registered the business on 10th April 2008.

It feels like it was only yesterday that I started the company, but at the same time, it feels like ages ago.

It wasn’t always easy, but it has been an exciting ride so far. If there is something I am very proud of, it is the consistency of the company’s vision. Nowadays in the startup world, there’s this very common concept of pivoting. Start with an idea and then change the product, the market, or everything, until it works. Somewhat.

I, however, started with the same idea that is still driving the company today: to create the best tools for image and video analysis specifically for forensics and investigations. Doing something very specific for a very specific kind of customer, but being the best in doing it and making it become the world standard. Continue reading

Amped DVRConv Update 10098: more formats, more speed, more options

Today we released an update to Amped DVRConv, the easiest way to convert videos from proprietary DVR formats.

We have been working on this update for some time and a few users have received beta updates in order to support formats that were urgently required. During this period we have re-engineered a good part of the architecture to improve stability, speed and format compatibility.

Continue reading

The Amped FIVE Assistant Video Tutorial

We recently announced the release of the latest version of Amped FIVE (10039) where we introduced a new operational mode through a panel called the “Assistant”.

The Assistant provides a set of predefined workflows which can be used to automate common operations or guide new users, but it’s not obtrusive. You can use it or not, and you can always add filters or do anything, as usual, it’s just an additional option.

We’ve created a video tutorial so you can see it in action. See below or watch on YouTube now!

We’ll be adding more videos to our YouTube channel soon, so follow us to get more videos like this.