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How smaller agencies can conduct effective digital investigations

All criminals will eventually leave a digital footprint that police can use to find, track, or obtain evidence


Last year, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg announced a significant investment in an interconnected, worldwide network of computers, companies and people called the metaverse. No matter how futuristic the concept of worldwide interconnectedness sounds, it is much closer than we think. Just consider the average four-member house in the U.S. with four cell phones, at least two smart TVs, a wireless router, a high-speed modem, wireless security cameras inside and out, tablets, smartwatches, VR headsets, smart toasters and appliances, thermostats, and of course a virtual assistant like Amazon’s Alexa to turn down the lights when you return from a long graveyard shift.

Over the past decade, criminals have moved away from violent crime where the risk of being caught and prosecuted is high toward technology-based crime like cyber fraud, hacking and sextortion where the risk of apprehension is much lower. Even drug dealers are moving from the street to the web. This shift in methodologies leaves law enforcement little choice but to use advanced technology to fight technology-driven crime, and this is not restricted to large cities and agencies. But how do smaller police departments conduct effective digital investigations?

I interviewed Detective Sergeant Christopher Collins with the Lake Jackson (Texas) Police Department, who is seeing a significant increase in technology-based crimes, about the training and tools his agency deploys. Sergeant Collins has been in law enforcement since 2008. His main role is as a detective with a secondary role as a digital forensic examiner for Lake Jackson PD, which services about 25,000 residents. Even in smaller towns like Lake Jackson, there is a need for a digital investigator.

How criminals are moving digital

All criminals will eventually leave a digital footprint that police can use to find, track, or obtain evidence. Drug dealers post pictures of cars, money and their product; human traffickers use known cell phone applications, communicate via text messages and receive photos of their victims; and fraudsters have images of documents, bank account information and victims’ passwords. Even shoplifters post pictures of their stolen merchandise when trying to sell the items online.

“It’s not uncommon to see people with more than one mobile device on their person. Everything from cellphones, smartwatches, and tablets are constantly collecting data, [that can be extracted by investigators],” said Sergeant Collins. “Criminals have always used technology for nontechnology crimes.” They leave digital footprints like GPS tracking data to and from the crime scene, text messages discussing and planning the crimes, and emails for trip planning. Since everyone is connected to technology, it makes it exceedingly difficult for people to disconnect.

Conducting digital investigations

Because technology is everywhere and proving cases beyond a reasonable doubt is becoming increasingly difficult, collecting digital evidence even on non-technology-based crimes can help prosecute cases and clear innocent people of wrongdoing.

Smaller police agencies face unique challenges when it comes to digital investigations. Personnel allocation and funding are the two biggest challenges.

Luckily, the Lake Jackson PD recognized the importance of digital evidence, so they allocated funding for a digital forensics investigator. But finding the right personnel for the job was just as hard as finding the right equipment for the investigations. “Just because someone ‘knows about computers’ does not make them an ideal candidate.” An employee must be dedicated, committed, and understand how digital investigations work.

Digital evidence management and analytical tools are expensive. But “if you skimp out on one [product], you’re really shackling yourself,” said Sergeant Collins. Using cars as a comparison to digital forensics tools, Sergeant Collings explained, “Fast and reliable is not cheap. Reliable and cheap, is not fast. [And] fast and cheap isn’t going to work.” Finding the right balance for each agency is the hard part.

One of the reasons Lake Jackson PD chose Cellebrite products is because they are scalable to their agency’s needs. Cellebrite offers physical tools to extract information from computers, cell phones and digital devices; they have tools that analyze the cloud; and systems to link multi-agency investigations into one master investigation.

It doesn’t matter if an agency has only 10 officers or 1000. There is a big need for designated digital forensic investigators in law enforcement. Sergeant Collins recommends that if your agency is small, reach out to those agencies around you and collaborate or split the costs with purchasing and managing digital forensic tools.

When asked what advice he had for officers, like himself, who are flying solo in their departments on how to use digital technology to better serve their communities and close the public-safety gap, here’s what DS Collins had to say:

  • Train up: Take up as much free training as you can. Reach out. If your department is part of the ICAC task force, go through ICAC training. They have a ton of resources for training that are free or very low-cost.
  • Find funding: While there are federal funds available, DS Collins recommends that those seeking funds to transform their department shouldn’t focus strictly on federal grants.
  • Set standard operating procedures: DS Collins is in the process of building a mandatory mobile device evidence collection course for basic-level patrol officers and even detectives because they need to be able to know how to handle devices collected at a crime scene.

Digital evidence is only increasing, and according to Microsoft’s David Williams, 90% of crime has some type of digital evidence tied to it. The BTK Killer, the Craigslist Killer, and countless fraudsters, robbers, and organized criminals have all been arrested, charged, and convicted based on digital evidence. It does not matter whether your agency is small or large, digital forensic tools will help your agency find, investigate and prosecute criminals.

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Joshua Lee is an active-duty police sergeant for a municipal police department in Arizona. Before being promoted, Joshua served five years as a patrol officer and six years as a detective with the Organized Crime Section investigating civil asset forfeiture, white-collar financial crime, and cryptocurrency crimes.

Joshua is a money laundering investigations expert witness and consultant for banks, financial institutions, and accountants. He is also an artificial intelligence for government applications advisor and researcher.

Joshua holds a BA in Justice Studies, an MA in Legal Studies, and an MA in Professional Writing. He has earned some of law enforcement’s top certifications, including the ACFE’s Certified Fraud Examiners (CFE), ACAMS Certified Anti-Money Laundering Specialist (CAMS) and the IAFC’s Certified Cyber Crimes Investigator (CCCI).

Joshua is an adjunct professor at a large national university, and a smaller regional college teaching law, criminal justice, government, technology, writing and English courses.