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UofL teams with FBI, other agencies to stop digital crime

November 3rd, 2006

By Kevin Rayburn

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A computer hard drive can provide vital evidence in some criminal cases.

A social worker was murdered, and a baby in her care was missing. Authorities issued an Amber Alert and sought the baby’s natural parents for questioning. A few days later, the fugitive couple was caught and the baby found unharmed.

Even as dignitaries and the press toured a new crime lab on the University of Louisville’s Shelby Campus Oct. 19, forensic examiners there already were helping to crack the case, searching through e-mail to gain clues as to suspect and motive.

Looking for digital “smoking guns” is the challenge of the new Kentucky Regional Computer Forensic Lab (RCFL) at UofL. The lab, one of just 14 FBI-operated RCFL facilities in the nation, brings the federal agency together with local law enforcement to bring efficiency and uniformity to finding, extracting and storing digital evidence and presenting it in court.

It also is the only RCFL in the nation to be associated with a university. Law enforcement officials there will conduct research in collaboration with UofL faculty and student interns to improve data extraction techniques and analyze emerging digital technologies.

“UofL has long been committed to having partnerships with agencies outside ours, but this one is special,” said university President James Ramsey at a press conference during the lab’s opening.

The lab and UofL’s research assistance is needed because the spread of digital technology means a corresponding rise in its use for criminal activity.

“There are 84 billion communications happening every day,” said Kerry Haynes, executive assistant director of the FBI’s Science and Technology branch. The digital age, he said “has created new opportunities for criminal and terrorist enterprises to exploit these communications methods to conduct their business.”

Criminal evidence is showing up in everything from desktop computers and laptops to pens, sunglasses, iPods, cell phones and tiny cameras.

Terrorist plots, kidnappings and other cases in which there is an imminent threat to life will take top priority at the lab, but personnel there also will investigate other crimes such as fraud, child pornography and white-collar corruption.

RCFL labs elsewhere have been key in solving such high-profile crimes as the Bind-Torture-Kill (BTK) serial murders and the Enron fraud; investigations also led to the conviction of California child molester Dean Schwartzmiller.

Law enforcement agencies in Kentucky are dedicating personnel full time to the lab to boost collaboration among agencies in crime solving. They include the Lexington Fayette Police, Louisville Metro Police, Kentucky State Police and the Kentucky Bureau of Investigation.

Sen. Mitch McConnell helped secure the nearly $3 million in funding for the lab’s initial phase. A second lab is being developed to house affiliated UofL faculty and student researchers from Speed School of Engineering, the Department of Justice Administration in the College of Arts & Science, and the Computer Information Systems program in the College of Business.

A new co-op program allows students in Speed School’s Computer Engineering and Computer Science department to collaborate on computer examination techniques.

The UofL interdisciplinary team also is developing a new undergraduate degree program in digital forensics.

Deborah Wilson, chair of justic administration and a key player in getting the RCFL to locate at UofL, said the degree would be one of the first of its kind in the nation.

“This collaboration opens up whole new areas in education and law enforcement,” Wilson said.

“This is all so new that we’re still developing the case law in this area of how digital evidence is handled,” she said. “We’re trying to make sure that the methods of obtaining, preserving and presenting this evidence are standardized so that it can be trusted by judges, attorneys and the public.”

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