Liam Owens, Director, Semantics 21

Liam, you're the Director of Semantics 21. Tell us a bit about the company and what prompted you to set it up.

Semantics 21 is a UK-based forward-looking digital forensics company, which specialises in the research and development of intelligent algorithms and digital forensics software. What we believe sets Semantics 21 apart from others in the field, is that we have many decades of research and development experience which we leverage to produce our own specialised algorithms specifically suited for digital forensics investigations. For example, we have developed leading-edge algorithms for nudity detection in images and videos, recognition of rotated and profile faces, and age recognition, amongst others. We encapsulate our research within simple to use, yet powerful software designed from the ground up with the assistance of UK Police Digital Forensics Units (DFUs).I and a co-founder decided to set up this company following the completion of my Ph.D. thesis titled ‘Decision-making technique and framework towards the automated categorisation of paedophilic multimedia’ at Staffordshire University. During the Ph.D. it became obvious while working with UK police that there was a continuous game of ‘cat and mouse’ being played between police and offenders, made all the more difficult by the increasing availability and capabilities of the Internet and of mass-market digital technology, and by budget cuts in the public sector.

From a personal perspective as members of the public with an almost-exclusive insider access to day-to-day policing, the greatest concerns we felt were for the welfare of the officers who review some horrible multimedia files on a daily basis, and (of course) for public safety, what with significant backlogs of unreviewed digital evidence building up across digital forensics departments in the UK and worldwide. The investigation tools that we saw used on a daily basis were outdated in comparison to the available research, which if exploited could provide more intelligent and autonomous solutions – a gap in the market we believed we could and now do occupy.

How did you become interested in digital forensics as a field?

I have been interested in digital forensics for as long as I could remember. Having grown up with the ‘boom’ of digital technology in the 90s, from Gameboy to iPad, the CSI-feel of security and understanding what can be learnt about a person based on the technology which they use was a fascinating one. Having completed A levels and an AVCE in ICT, I joined Staffordshire University and was later awarded a first-class BSc (Hons) degree in Forensic Computing, before being offered a leap straight into Ph.D. research where I closely worked with Staffordshire Police DFU. Whilst studying for my BSc (Hons) degree, I was also given the opportunity to work as a placement student with Staffordshire Police DFU on a special project, where I was proud to be taught by and work with such a fantastic group of professionals. It was this work which really made my interest in digital forensics hit its peak.

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Tell us more about your products.

We currently have three main leading-edge products: Motion Video Player (MVP), Multi-Screen Viewer (MSV), and Image Viewer (imView).

MVP is a customisable specialist software package designed to reduce the time it takes to review CCTV and video media. It provides the ability for investigators to use state-of-the-art motion and sound detection, motion detection within an area of interest, frame and video enhancement, one-click frame capture, note adding and streamlined reporting, in addition to all features of a standard video player.

MSV is a customisable specialist software package designed to reduce the time it takes to investigate and report on video media. It provides the ability for investigators to split videos into many segments on a single screen, capture frames with one click, preview videos as a storyboard or multiple videos as a carousel, and produce streamlined reports, in addition to all features of a standard video player. It is powered by state-of-the-art video analysis algorithms.

imView is a specialist software package designed to reduce the time it takes to review images and animations. It provides the ability for investigators to use state-of-the-art image analysis techniques to filter images based on faces, age, nudity and similarity to other images. It also includes one-click labelling, note adding and streamlined reporting, in addition to all features of a standard image viewer.

Our customers say that our products achieve unrivalled performance in digital forensics investigations. Our products have so many features; to name a few, they include: being memory efficient, multi-threaded, and fully compliant with CAID (child abuse image database); automated reporting; powerful multimedia filtering and labelling; detection of motion and sound; detection of rotated and profile faces; age recognition; nudity detection; grouping similar images; victim identification support; Microsoft PhotoDNA support; enhancement of low-quality multimedia; and much more.

In your opinion, what are some of the main challenges facing digital forensic investigators today, and how do Semantics 21's tools help to address these?

We believe the major challenge facing digital forensics investigators today in the field of child protection has to be the amount of data needing to be processed on a daily basis, both efficiently and most of all accurately and with minimal effect on the mental well-being of investigators. At a time when the UK government is continuing to make budget cuts, we believe it is important again to mention that these are everyday people having to investigate this disturbing material, so the human welfare factor cannot be overstated.

The tools used by many police forces are either both underpowered and clumsy, or overpowered and slow – which is where we believe our tools are different. Designed in partnership with a UK Police DFU, we have been able to ensure that the features offered in our software are exactly what is needed by UK Police, whilst employing the latest state-of-the-art research and techniques for intelligent multimedia analysis. Our software supports automated workflows and processes as much as possible. By speeding up the multimedia review and categorisation process, while at the same time maintaining the quality and rigour of the process, our tools allow investigators to find ‘key’ evidence faster including victim identification, reducing investigation time, decreasing costs and the time investigators spend reviewing potentially disturbing material.

Speedier and reliable investigations free up investigators, giving them more time to deal with more cases and time for other activities geared towards safeguarding the public. Cutting down the backlog of evidence also means that offenders can be brought to justice quicker; as you know very well, this reduces the likelihood of suspects committing new offences while an investigation of their previous suspected offence(s) is in progress.

Semantics 21 has been working closely with a leading Digital Forensics Unit in the UK – why do you think it's so important for corporations and law enforcement agencies to work together, and what can we as forensic practitioners do to encourage ongoing collaborations?

From our experience working in partnership with law enforcement agencies, there is an obvious discrepancy between what other technology companies think law enforcement agencies need… and what they actually need. We believe TV programs such as CSI: Las Vegas, with a ‘good entertainment’ factor built into in such series, have perhaps distorted the perception of the capabilities of the tools that everyday forensic investigators have.

After initial work with law enforcement agencies we decided that Semantics 21 should be a fresh start, providing products from the ground up, firmly based on user requirements which are captured in the context of live day-to-day investigations, to ensure that the partnership allows us to create products exactly suited for law enforcement agencies, and matched to the skill sets of the experts working inside those units, without overkill or falling short. We believe it is essential that technology companies and law enforcement agencies work together to ensure that public safety and investigator welfare are prioritized over all else, and to ensure that technology companies deliver excellent products which meet the requirements of investigators and are available as soon as possible. These are some of the key boxes that our customers have ticked when asked to judge our products.

By working in partnership with a leading UK Police DFU, we have also been able to conduct a case study on the effects that our products are having on their digital forensics departments – and we proud to announce that they have led to a significant increase in performance across the whole unit, with very positive user feedback.

A common criticism of GUI-based forensic tools is that examiners, especially those new to the field, may become overly reliant on the software and its feature-set at the expense of a deeper appreciation of what is going on "under the hood." How valid are these concerns?

The concerns are valid to some extent, but it is important to see both perspectives.

In an ideal world, an investigator would know computing ‘like the back of their hand’, and be given ample amounts of money and time for research, and continually attend training courses to keep up to date with the ever-changing world as much as possible. However, we don’t live in an ideal world; if we did, there would be no need for Semantics 21 Ltd or maybe even law enforcement agencies. The cost and the down-time involved in continual research and training would only further exacerbate the current climate of insufficient budgets, huge backlogs, and pressure on investigators – who are human after all (this seems too easy to forget, for many).

There needs to be a reliance on modern technologies and software to perform tasks faster and more accurately, particularly for tasks which are unnecessarily complex or tedious, or distressing for investigators. As we know, the use of modern technology should deliver investigation outcomes faster, cheaper and not prone to human error (due to lapse in attention, fatigue, illness or distress, for example). It is important for investigators to have some understanding of what the tool is doing, almost a ‘grey box’ but not necessarily a ‘white box’ style understanding. I think red tape also needs to be considered here – a software tool programmed correctly will do the same procedure each time without fail, whereas a human is more likely to be subject to changes. In a court of law, this means once a software tool has been tried, tested or challenged over a given procedure, the software can’t really be criticized again over that procedure… but humans can be, which creates the opportunity for a challenge by the defense each time.

We believe Semantics 21 Ltd represents the final evolution of digital forensics software towards the phase we call ‘Semantic Analysis Systems (SAS) for digital forensics’, partly as an analogy that we see between the impact that we anticipate semantic analysis will have in digital forensics and what the world famous SAS have achieved in special operations.

Here, we envision a system which anyone can plug a data device into, and which then dynamically uses its artificial intelligence to recover and review all relevant data, interpret the meaning (semantics) of the collected evidence, as a human investigator would (including grading images, if required), and produce a report, in compliance with the necessary legalities. Needless to say, we will adjust the envisioned system where necessary, to ensure that processes are forensically sound and they can stand up to scrutiny in a court of law.

Towards this vision, Semantics 21 has proven in its research and technologies that the accuracy of determining nudity, human faces (rotated and profiles) and age is now at a commercially viable level. This will increase in time to come, and with the recent resurgence of artificial intelligence and eventual emergence of semantic analysis capability, these “SAS” tools could do many of the jobs for us.

For those who are ‘non-believers’, consider that we already have self-operating robots, self-driving cars and self-flying helicopters and planes. The future is coming, and the digital forensics community should welcome and embrace it. We at Semantics 21 Ltd are in the front seat, pushing the envelope towards the future.

What does the future hold for Semantics 21? What can we expect to see in the next year or so?

It’s an exciting time for Semantics 21. In the recent year, we’ve launched our first three main products and the response has been fantastic, our products are simply unrivalled! It’s been great to work with our partner DFU, to ensure that our products meet the requirements of the end users perfectly and we’ve continued to enjoy the mutually beneficial relationship and tune our products, making them even better for digital forensics investigators than envisioned.

In the next year, we plan to expand further, and will welcome other law enforcement agencies as new users of our products and onto our Certified Partners programme. We continue to develop the tools, to save more time and money, to protect the public faster, and help enhance the welfare of investigators. We have new ideas for products, and the public and private agencies we’ve worked with so far have provided new suggestions, and insights into projects they’d like us to collaborate on.

We know from feedback that people have been amazed at the research and technologies that we’ve developed and made accessible in simple yet powerful software… yet we believe this unparalleled software is nothing compared to what we have in the pipeline towards a bright and productive future for our customers.

Finally, when you're not developing digital forensic software, what do you like to do in your spare time?

Spare time is a bit of an ‘alien concept’ to us recently; Semantics 21 was a hobby, then a project, now a livelihood for us. We do like to take time to refresh the batteries when possible, and my co-founder and I are passionate football fans and players – and although supporting other clubs, both have a soft spot for our local premier league team Stoke City. We are both people persons, so we enjoy socializing with partners, friends and clients. We also both enjoy traveling across the world including our next adventure to Jamaica later this year as I get married (a new adventure in itself!).

Semantics 21 is a UK based forward-looking digital forensics company, which specialises in the research and development of intelligent algorithms and digital forensics software. For more information, including product specifications, and to download flyers, visit You can also email Liam on or call the team on +44(0) 1785 330758.

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