Evidence increasingly high-tech in Lakeville
Police Department has new computer forensic science lab
In Lakeville’s police station at the center of the city, there is a room for which even Police Chief Tom Vonhof has no key.
In a world in which people increasingly live parallel lives – the tangible, “real” world and the cyberspace of electronic banking, social media and information – the criminal sphere has increasingly spilled over to become parallel as well.
Police, even at a municipal level, have had to adapt to this changing world. In that isolated room in the police station is the Lakeville PD’s frontline defense against cyber crimes: a new computer forensic lab.
“We’ve been evolving into this over the last few years,” Vonhof said. “What’s really happened is in some major cases we’ve found that computers or smartphones have been significant elements of those cases.”
Detective Russ Helmueller attended training sessions at the Department of Justice’s National White Collar Crime Center throughout much of 2011 to provide him with the tools necessary to navigate the complex realm of computer-based evidence. A $20,000 grant from the DOJ made the training possible, Vonhof said. Helmueller is also involved with the Internet Crimes Against Children task force. And Helmueller does have a key to the lab.
The lab has two high-powered computer stations, one which another law enforcement agency donated to Lakeville. Some of the equipment was purchased with money from that DOJ grant. The department used about $12,000 from its own budget, Vonhof said.
“With this commitment we are able to process all sorts of devices: iPads, smartphones, computers,” Vonhof said.
The decision to keep the lab cut off from the rest of department is in part related to due diligence.
“It is all evidence,” Vonhof said. Not just the electronic devices themselves, but also the data they house. “(The lab) is not hooked into our network.”
The lab allows for investigation of everything from email or text correspondence to the detection of illicit photography and software used to commit fraud.
To retrieve data from a device that is admissible in court, police can’t simply plug an iPhone into a PC or Mac and set forth on data collection.
Previously, Vonhof said, the department would have to send the devices out to jurisdictions such as the Dakota County Sheriff’s Department or the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.
A few years ago, the department’s detectives had to send a Blackberry to Canada because a department there had the only available technology for proper forensic investigation.
Vonhof said it took “six months to a year” to get the device processed. The assistance of other agencies is a nice resource to have, he said, but investigations must transpire in an efficient manner.
“The thing about criminal investigations is having information in a timely manner is critical to the success of an investigation,” Vonhof said.
Digital evidence seems poised to become an even more pervasive – and pivotal – component of criminal investigations.
Vonhof sees it following a similar trajectory to DNA’s role in evidence gathering.
“Where initially it was used in most serious cases of homicide and criminal sexual conduct,” Vonhof said, “it has evolved now to where we do DNA cases on stolen vehicles, burglaries… I see this capability to collect computer forensic evidence go from serious to more common crimes.”
As our digital and physical worlds become more intertwined, so do the crimes (or the evidence of crimes, anyway).
“Society is so involved in the virtual world,” Vonhof said, “we often have cases related to that.”