From the February 2016 Desktop News | In the world of cybercrime, offenders tend to have the upper hand. According to Beau Sams, a UAPD officer at The University of Alabama’s Joint Electronic Crimes Task Force, or JECTF, “Technology always outpaces law enforcement’s ability to deal with it.” But by partnering with academia—and student interns, who are closer to the forefront of technology and social media—police officers are hoping to catch up.
The JECTF internship, which began in spring 2015, currently holds seven interns and four officers, who primarily work on what they call dead-box forensics—recovering sensitive information from phones, computers, or other devices that have been turned off or wiped.
As the program grows, academic director Dr. Diana Dolliver hopes to bring in more officers to better accommodate the lab and the students’ needs.
“Ideally we’d like to have a one-to-one ratio with examiners,” she said. “The more we get our name out there, the more we’ll be picking up speed.”
Jonathan Laufe, a senior majoring in political science, has been with JECTF since its first semester and has seen it grow.
“They’re tailoring the internship to better fit the students, and I think it’s getting better each semester,” he said.
As a part of the internship, students are trained on how to crack encrypted computers, image deleted data on devices, research program grants, and find out more about the latest technologies. Throughout the semester, they also complete a research project based on a topic of their interest. Students have researched everything from the patterns in financial breaches to time series analyses on the characteristics of phishing sites.
“I tried to tailor my research to something that would help the officers in addition to myself,” Laufe said.
Last semester his project examined how BlackLight software is used by police officers to retrieve potentially incriminating messages from the Facebook Messenger app. The software is supposed to recover all social media messages. But when Facebook messaging moved to the secondary outlet Facebook Messenger, Laufe wondered if the software would still retrieve everything.
“It turns out it doesn’t,” Laufe concluded. “With the hard coding that exists in the applications they have now, I was unable to pull up any of the Facebook messages I exchanged. And that was definitely an interesting find for the examiners.”
For Laufe, the best part of the internship has been the access to the investigators.
“They’re a wealth of knowledge,” he said. “Every time I read something online that I don’t understand completely, I can go inside and ask them.”
And direct contact with officers is not a luxury most students interested in law or law enforcement have.
“I describe it to my parents as the best learning experience of my education,” Laufe said. “I take six classes a semester, and I still always feel like I learn the most in the lab.
“You can learn about a server as much as you want in class, but until you have one in front of you, you’ll never really understand it.”
UA partnered with the JECTF in August of 2014. As of September, the program has assisted 16 law enforcement agencies and conducted more than 300 digital examinations of devices.