Article by Katie Bedrich | Photos by Kelsey Daugherty, Ginny Sturgill and Bryan Hester
As a high school student, Caitlin Hanley had her first experience with cybercrime. Her laptop computer was infected with a virus while she was studying in Germany, and she decided she wanted to help others avoid similar experiences. Around the same time, The University of Alabama Police Department, in partnership with College of Arts and Sciences professors, were working toward construction of a digital-forensics lab that would assist in solving cases across the state – and perhaps the nation – and provide students like Hanley with real-world experience in cybercrime investigations.
“I found that it was a really interesting field, especially as I chose to study computer science in college,” says Hanley, now a senior computer science major at UA with minors in German and the Computer-Based Honors Program.
Hanley is one of 15 students who have been part of the Joint Electronic Crimes Task Force since its creation in Fall 2014. The digital-forensics lab for the JECTF is the largest digital-evidence-processing center operated by local law-enforcement personnel in Alabama. It was established on the UA campus through a grant from the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs and a vision for student interns to shadow law-enforcement officers who partner with police departments across the state to identify, preserve and extract digital evidence for cybercrime cases.
“We’re getting to a point where now almost every crime has some aspect of electronics in it,” says UAPD Officer Beau Sams, an examiner at the JECTF.
Officers can process evidence from any crime involving computer technology – everything from a murder in which a hit man was hired via the Internet to a security breach that compromised consumers’ personal or financial information.
“Cybercrime poses an increasing danger as more of our daily transactions are digital and online,” says Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, who approved the grant. “This new lab will have the expertise to uncover digital evidence and give criminals one less place to hide.”
UAPD Capt. Clay Hickman, law-enforcement director of the JECTF, says many state and federal agencies are overwhelmed when it comes to digital-forensics cases, and not all have the technology or manpower available at the JECTF lab.
The JECTF lab also offers the advantage of utilizing college-age minds. “The interns, being so comfortable operating devices in the digital age, are a natural asset when it comes to researching developing trends, such as emerging social media applications,” Sams says.
UA’s JECTF Internship Program, in which students of all majors can earn academic credit through CJ 395, began in spring 2015. Six students work in the lab each fall and spring semester, and three to four students take part during summer. Students earn one to 12 credits depending on the amount of time they spend assisting officers in the digital-forensics lab. During spring, summer and fall 2015, 15 interns each served 20 to 40 hours per week.
“These interns work closely with officers to learn techniques involved in handling and examining digital evidence,” says Dr. Diana Dolliver, assistant professor in UA’s Department of Criminal Justice and the academic director of the JECTF. “The internship involves job shadowing, hands-on learning and research into evolving technologies and techniques within this field.”
The JECTF is composed of officers from UAPD, the Tuscaloosa Police Department, Northport Police Department and the Tuscaloosa County Sheriff’s Office and works with state and national agencies including the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force and the U.S. Secret Service. The JECTF processes evidence from cases across Alabama and has assisted 16 law-enforcement agencies or divisions and conducted more than 300 digital examinations of electronic devices since 2014.
Jonathan Laufe, a senior majoring in political science with minors in criminal justice and computer science, was one of the first interns to step into the lab in spring 2015. He interned again in Fall 2015 and Spring 2016.
“I’m there even when I don’t have to be,” he says. “We pretty much come in every day because there’s a lot to learn and see, and it’s a good time.”In summer 2015, Hanley, Devin Stevens, a senior majoring in criminal justice, and Aaron Austin, a junior majoring in economics, pooled their knowledge from various academic backgrounds to assist JECTF officers and investigators. Austin tapped into experience with case topics like business fraud and hacking, while Stevens used his criminal-profiling abilities and Hanley applied what she had learned about computer software.
“Being able to all bring what we’re best at to the table allows us to tackle a lot of different things,” Stevens says.
Students say they enjoy learning about and using the lab’s state-of-the-art technology. Various tools and equipment allow officers to extract information from electronic devices including smartphones, computers, cameras and video-game consoles. They then make an “image” (copy) of the information and transfer it to a “dummy” device where students can explore it without risk of compromising evidence.
Students also incorporate their academic studies and lab experiences into a 10-page research paper. Austin, for example, researched hacking and data breaches in the financial world and had personal access to officers as sources of information.
“We learned about the whole process, from collecting evidence all the way up to bringing it into the courtroom for a case,” he says.
The JECTF officers say they also benefit from having students in the lab. Most past and current interns say they spend much of their free time at the lab and have developed close, mentor/mentee relationships with the officers.
“It certainly changed my outlook on law enforcement,” Laufe says. “Seeing how far they’re willing to go to help people, especially in times like today where there are a lot of strong feelings toward law enforcement. It’s been great to work with them.”