A key to solving crime in today's digital world is to out-technology the bad guys.
A sophisticated digital forensics lab -- rare outside the FBI, Homeland Security and state police facilities -- can be found at Elgin Community College. Its key piece of equipment is a powerful computer system known as FRED -- forensic recovery of evidence device.
And with state and FBI crime labs notoriously backlogged, the community college campus provides a new home for police to work on solving crime.
"Very few things can be done nowadays without leaving a digital fingerprint," said Detective Keith Smith, a 30-year veteran of the Kane County Sheriff's Department, who helped set up the digital forensics lab, the only one of its type at a college in Illinois, and helps train officers how to use the equipment.
It's free to law enforcement agencies seeking to extract evidence from computers, cellphones, tablets, GPS units and other digital devices.
The lab has the same capabilities as those used to catch the Boston Marathon bombers. That was made possible through analysis of video footage captured by security cameras outside stores and smartphone pictures taken by marathon onlookers.
Digital evidence is the cornerstone of tracking gang activity, child pornography, Internet crimes, corruption and even terrorism.
But typically, local police departments don't have digital forensics capabilities.
"To me, this is kind of leading edge," said Smith, noting that modern-day accident investigations need digital forensics. For example, in cases involving distracted drivers, police could use ECC's lab equipment to extract evidence from the driver's cellphone to find out when the last text message was sent and to whom, even after it was deleted. Police also could determine if the driver was watching a video at the time of the accident.
"In the multitude of child pornography investigations, you've got a (digital) history of what that person was doing," Smith said. "Local police departments don't have officers trained in digital forensics. They have to recognize the need. You have to have someone who can investigate those kinds of crimes. It's more than important. It's a necessity because so many cases can be better focused and more efficiently investigated through the use of a trained officer."
ECC's lab is modeled after a similar one at the University of Tulsa, a leader in the digital forensics field.
"We took some ideas on the kind of equipment that needed to be in it," said Scott Adams, a retired patrol commander with the Carpentersville Police Department, now associate dean overseeing ECC's digital forensics lab.
The lab is far from outrageously expensive. It has roughly $65,000 worth of equipment and is funded through a nearly $150,000 National Science Foundation grant. It has been operating for six months and already has been used in some sheriff's department investigations.
The lab runs differently than a traditional crime lab. There are no technicians on hand to extract evidence for police departments. Instead, local departments are encouraged to train an officer to use the specialized equipment, Adams said.
The lab is equipped with evidence lockers and is accessible only to those with an electronic key card. The facility is monitored at all times by video surveillance and has burglar and fire alarms.
"We had to make sure it was secure in order to maintain the chain of custody," Adams said.
The college also offers a digital forensics associate degree for traditional students and a certificate program for law enforcement professionals developed through the grant funding.
Officials hired Smith, who also is a cybercrime task force officer with Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as a consultant to maintain the lab and provide professional training.
"Some departments are lining up to get the training," Adams said. "For smaller police departments, it's also a career development opportunity for their officers. The ultimate goal would be for any law enforcement (agency) to be able to come and use it.
"I really envision it to be more than just local police departments. If state and federal government agencies want to use it, as long as they are trained on the equipment, the more the merrier. The more digital crimes we have, the more cyber crimes we have, the more the demand is going to be."
Lab: No technicians on hand, instead local departments send trained officer to use equipment