Browse topics that interest you
For former AFP Senior Digital Forensics Officer Paula Alam, working to take down child exploitation rings and prevent acts of terrorism - as well as being a wife and mother - was incredibly rewarding.

‘Unfashionable’ choice leads to outstanding career in AFP digital forensics

In 2021, former AFP Senior Digital Forensics Officer Paula Alam was working on a child protection case that later became her defining career moment.

It was confronting. It involved a significant amount of work. And it tested her professional knowledge against a persistent defence.

The case that she was working through drew on all of her expertise. It involved a man found to have child abuse material in 'backup files' on his computer. While no images were found on his mobile phone, Paula began analysing it. She wanted to determine if the computer images had any links to the device, where they came from, and if they had been sent or received by the user.  

"I was conducting a full analysis of his devices, because evidentiary-wise we didn't have a lot to work with. I pretty much had to dig deep and paint a picture of what was happening – building a story on his activities," Paula said.

In response to pre-trial reports from Paula, the man's defence expert argued that the mobile app used to access the images had not been used by the defendant, but had instead been installed via a piece of malicious software - malware.

Paula was able to prove that the app had been installed, uninstalled and then reinstalled on his device, many times.

"By comparing timestamps, I was able to determine that the app was often installed just before images were accessed and then uninstalled shortly afterwards.

"I had the defence expert question all of my evidence. I really had to dispute the malware theory that the virus did it. I put in a lot of work for that particular case.

"From what we started off with – the fact that there weren't that many pictures on the computer – I had to pen a story about where they came from," she said. "There were many technical obstacles as well – I put all of my knowledge of computer forensics to good use."

While on maternity leave, the judge was adamant that he wanted Paula to present her own findings, not one of her colleagues.

However, just before the commencement of the trial, the man plead guilty.

"It was interesting, very challenging, but a very good outcome," she said. "I'm extremely proud of this because without all of that work I don't think there would have been a conviction."

In a career-type so often referred to as 'geeky', this was a moment to savour.

Women are set to change the industry

As more women join the digital forensics industry, and eventually take on case work, Paula sees them leading the way in innovation.

"Traditional forensics is changing. More data is now stored in the 'cloud' rather than physical drives and there's been the emergence of the 'Internet of Things' - devices which interconnect appliances, watches, cameras, speakers and more.

"Women will be on the forefront of finding solutions and creative ways to examine the data in a forensically sound way. I also see women supporting each other and sharing ideas and experiences, and mentoring.

"There are a lot more women now in the IT industry – and they're excelling, they're doing a great job. I find that with computer science, sometimes your brain just understands coding and 'gets it' and you get excited because you understand what to someone else looks like a jumble."

She credits her own growth to some supportive former AFP Forensics Team members over 12 years, who have encouraged learning and development.

But there were no early mentors from within the profession to steer her initial career decision.

"In high school we had basic IT and it wasn't really that exciting. So it wasn't until I went to university and kind of stumbled across it and talked to other females around me that – no one really knew much about it.

"I was labelled as a 'geek' because it wasn't popular at the time."

Once at university, she drew inspiration from a former student.

"She came to give us a talk in our last semester at uni – and was working for a private company. She was like my mentor at the time, someone who opened up the industry and job opportunities for me. I looked up to her and we stayed in contact for a few years."

Computer science is a lot more popular career path for women now.

"It's definitely a lot more popular. I'm noticing that girls – particularly school-age girls – are now into Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects."

This is being actively promoted at most schools.

"My daughter attends a coding class every week down the road from home.

"I just find that girls are now a lot more interested in IT, and so if you're interested in it and you are good at it then you get that passion flowing. A lot more girls now know about it, so they can get passionate about computer science."

Towards a more flexible profession

Working in digital forensics has changed a lot in recent years.

"Before COVID, it wasn't possible to work from home and still do your job. But it is possible now because of the infrastructure that we've got and remote computer access," Paula said.

"You still can't be at home for accessing evidence, but most certainly you can do all of your analysis , whereas before you couldn't. If organisations are set up to 'remote-in' securely and properly, then yes, you can do a lot of work from home."

After returning from her first maternity leave nine years ago, it was a different landscape.

"I didn't want to work from home, I just wanted to work part time. I had to fight for it. Not only was I the first female, but also the first mother in the team, a lot of the guys weren't fathers yet.

Due to family circumstances and limited daycare availabilities, her flexible work arrangement saw her attend the office and conduct search warrants as needed – sometimes working on days off when she was needed for a job or to appear in court.

"I did prove myself, I ended up working the hardest. I felt like I had to show that I could work just as hard, produce the same results and be just as flexible. I did show that over the years," she said.

Since COVID, similar arrangements have become more accepted.

"Now, I feel like there's a lot more understanding, there's no stigma behind it. A lot of people also aren't afraid to ask. I think it's a lot better now.

"As an experienced forensic analyst in my field - helping to take down child exploitation rings and prevent acts of terrorism - as well as being a wife and mother, it has been incredibly rewarding."

Downtime…

Before her degree, Paula's 'go-to' TV staple was 'Law and Order, SVU'. But with a family of three children now, it's more like 'The Block' and 'MasterChef'. And if there's time to 'binge watch' with her husband, 'Homeland' is another on the list.

From the cookie cutter police of SVU, to the manufactured reality of The Block, both have provided an escape from the realities of work at different stages of her career.

"It's funny how in the TV show CSI you're the cop, the forensic scientist, the computer forensic expert and the crime scene investigator all in one – it's not quite how it happens in real life!"

The drive home from the AFP is the time when Paula would transition from work mode to mum mode. "I listen to Christian music, catch up with friends, and clear my mind before picking the kids up from school.

"I switch off from work by not going on any computers – basically just turning down the technology when I go home. To be honest, with three kids, it's kind of different, you don't really have time to think too much about work. They keep you on your toes!"

When asked if she thought she would ever swap jobs with anyone, the answer was a very quick: "No".

This was her dream job – she'd had her eyes on it for a while and loved it. But at a stretch? "OK, maybe a DJ – but just for a day – creating mixtapes."