We talk with Nasir Memon, the co-founder of Digital Assembly, on photo analysis and his company, author of the famous photo forensics tool.
Nasir Memon is a professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering and director of the Information Systems and Internet Security (ISIS) laboratory at NYU-Poly. He is one of the founding members of the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Security and Privacy (CRISSP), a collaborative initiative of multiple schools within NYU including NYU-Steinhardt, NYU-Wagner, NYU-Stern and NYU-Courant. His research interests include digital forensics, data compression, and multimedia computing and security. Memon earned a Bachelor of Engineering in Chemical Engineering and a Master of Science in Mathematics from Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS) in Pilani, India in 1981. He received a Master of Science in Computer Science and a PhD in Computer Science from the University of Nebraska.
Prof. Memon has published over 250 articles in journals and conference proceedings and holds a dozen patents in image compression and security. He has won several awards including the National Science Foundation’s CAREER Award and the Jacobs Excellence in Education Award from NYU-Poly. He has been on the editorial boards of several journals and was the Editor-In-Chief of Transactions on Information Security and Forensics.
He is an IEEE Fellow and a distinguished lecturer of the IEEE Signal Processing Soceity. Memon is the co-founder of Digital Assembly and Vivic Networks, two early-stage start-ups in NYU-Poly’s business incubators.
Yuri: Nasir, how did you start Digital Assembly?
Nasir: In the mid-90s I was told by law enforcement that there was a need for a technology that would automatically recover fragmented data. I began work with some Research Fellows on the problem with both files and digital photos. We were extremely successful with the recovery of fragmented digital photos and that is when we knew we had the basis for a company. Digital Assembly was formed as a result.
We were extremely successful with the recovery of fragmented digital photos
Yuri: What is special about your tools?
Nasir: Our specialized photo forensics tool called Adroit Photo Forensics is the most powerful photo recovery tool available today. It uses patented technology called SmartCarving™ to recover fragmented photos. In addition we have an additional advanced recovery technology called GuidedCarving™. We also have many additional technologies and features that deal specifically with photos that are unavailable in other forensic tools.
Yuri: What is the most interesting/unusual thing a customer has ever said about your company or your solutions?
Nasir: One of our customers described SmartCarving™ as “magic” and was convinced that we were “filling in details”. Standard forensic knowledge at the time said that fragmented data was not recoverable automatically. It took a while to convince him that was not so, and he only really believed when he saw the list of publications we had in the area.
Yuri: What is about your company or tool which you are proud of?
Nasir: Aside from the aforementioned SmartCarving™, we are extremely proud of how the tool has been embraced world-wide. From Australia to Sweden to the U.S. our users are using Adroit Photo Forensics to process cases. What is also interesting is that aside from Law Enforcement and private investigators, we have a lot of customers from the Intelligence field as well.
Unfortunately, due to the nature of forensic work we are not told the specific details of cases. However, we are extremely proud that our product is on the front lines of the battle against child exploitation.
Adroit helps investigators during every phase of a case
Yuri: We have first met at EuroForensics almost 2 years ago. What have changed in your Adroit solution since that time?
Nasir: A huge amount has changed in the last 2 years. We have taken feedback from Law Enforcement from around the globe to make it a much stronger and more comprehensive product. Adroit now helps investigators during every phase of a case from recovery to organization to content analysis to categorization and reporting.
Yuri: What are your immediate plans with regards to your company? Your solutions?
Nasir: While we have quite a few items in the works we are not ready to announce anything as yet.
Yuri: What is the most interesting or unusual investigation you or your company has ever been involved in?
Nasir: We are not involved directly in investigations. We work with the investigators should they have questions, but the nature of all such interactions are understandably private.
Not all forensic technologies that work for text based files will work for images
Yuri: What do you think every investigator should know about image and/or video processing?
Nasir: Every investigator should understand that not all forensic technologies that work for text based files will work for image or video processing. For example, standard text based fuzzy hashing techniques used in popular forensic tools are not able to detect different versions of the same photo. You need specialized tools and techniques for images and video.
To process photo evidence you need special tools.
Yuri: Do you believe that every computer forensics investigator should have a copy of your tool?
Nasir: If they work on a case where photos are part of the evidence then yes absolutely! And this is increasingly the case. 3 billion photos are uploaded to Facebook every month. A 100 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every hour. We all walk around with a pretty nifty camera (aka cell phone) in our pocket all the time. We take photos we share them, upload them, email them etc etc. So it is very likely that any case that has digital evidence has photos as part of the evidence. To process photo evidence you need special tools.
Yuri: Are there any obstacles to selling products like yours?
Nasir: Many unfortunately. Law enforcement budgets are tight. There is a lack of understanding about photos and videos. Tools have not been validated in a courtroom.
…there will always be locally stored data
Yuri: Cloud computing is becoming very popular now. Do you feel that forensic market for vendors, like you, is decreasing due to that? The more data is in a cloud, the less data is on a suspect’s computer. Do you have any support for clouds in your products?
Nasir: For the immediate future, there will always be locally stored data. We currently do not have support for the cloud in our products, but we are definitely looking into the need for such solutions.
Yuri: The same question about social networks, which displace usual evidence such as mailboxes, chats, etc.: does this decrease your niche and make investigations more difficult?
Nasir: Answer is similar to the previous question.
…blind acceptance of standard tools prevents us from doing more
Yuri: What do you like most about computer forensics? Less?
Nasir: It is useful in catching the bad guys. It is put to use every day to do so. What I don’t like is the lack of sophistication in the most commonly used tools. We can do better than that. Also the “What you see is all there is” attitude. There could be more!! But blind acceptance of standard tools prevents us from doing more.
Yuri: What forensic resources do you regularly read? What would you recommend to others?
Nasir: I don’t read really. My students read and teach me. (smiling)
Yuri: How old are you?
Yuri: How many kids do you have?
Yuri: How do you spend your free time?
Nasir: What free time??
Yuri: How many hours of sleep do you usually have?
Nasir: About 6 to 8.
Yuri: What is your favorite vacation spot?
Nasir: Big cities with museums, historical sites and restaurants.
Yuri: You should come to St-Petersburg, you will love it as it has everything from your list and much more!.. Nasir, do you do any sports? Which one? What is your preference in watching professional sports?
Nasir: No. But I do follow cricket. To bond with my son I follow baseball a little (Mets) and basketball (Nets). But not much.
Yuri: When did you have your last vacation? A real vacation, without any Internet and calls from your colleagues or customers?
Nasir: An hour or so of internet email always happens. So in that sense not really
Yuri: Do you have a dream?
Nasir: A copy of Adroit in every law enforcement office!!
Yuri: Nasir, thank you for the interview!