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Forensics in the 21st century: the basics and the challenges. Part II

Forensics in the 21st century: the basics and the challenges. Part II

Forensics (also called criminalistics) emerged as a science in the 19th century. We asked Dr Ryszard Krawczyk from the JU Chair in Forensic Science about its focus, development, problems, and challenges that it faces in the 21st century.

How much truth is there in crime TV series?

The vision of forensics in popular TV series is as just as precise and effective as it is removed from reality. The techniques used in them are often already being used by real police forces, but the way they are employed are purely fictional. One frequently occurring mistake is that the same person secures the crime scene (wearing only gloves and no protective suit, naturally) and later performs an analysis of the data with a nearly unequivocal results. The audience may take it at face value and expect the same impossible outcome in real life. It’s called the CSI effect.

So these methods aren’t foolproof?

We need to remember that although our methods are advanced, they are still used by people, and people are not infallible. If we make a mistake, technology won’t help us. Recently, a method once preferred by the FBI in ballistics research was deemed unscientific, as it relied on the subjective opinions of experts and not objective evidence.

There have been some suggestions that forensic science should dispose of individual identification, i.e. expert criminologists should not categorically claim that a person has committed a crime. To give an example, a forensic scientist called to testify in court could say: ‘You Honour, after examining all the evidence I can confirm that it might have been left by John Doe’, but not: ‘I’m sure it was left by John Doe’. It would be the court’s task to assess the available data and decide on the verdict. On the upside, judges would have much more influence than experts, but the downside is that experts are often hired for one specific reason: to unequivocally determine some facts about the trial.

It’s important to note that we as forensic scientists are responsible for providing trustworthy information, and not for passing judgement. However, it seems that the practice nowadays is for the courts to overly rely on the opinions of experts.

What are the challenges in modern forensic science?

Cybercrime is a new phenomenon in criminalistics. There’s no reliable way of teaching students about it, since preventing and fighting it is largely based on secrecy. If more people knew about the methods police use to combat cybercrime, it would be much easier for the criminals to stay undetected. Most police headquarters have special departments devoted to cybercrime. In general, their job is to comb the Internet in search of illegal activity.

Criminal analysis is also a relatively new issue, which can be traced back to the 1920s, but has since then been enhanced with computer studies. It involves using a network of computers which aggregate massive amounts of data. This is mostly used to combat ‘white-collar crime’ (public administration, lawyers, tax advisors etc.).

Read part one here.

Original text:
Photograph: Flickr

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