USF Polytechnic Prepares Students for Criminal Investigations
If you use a computer, you leave a trail. That very notion is helping law enforcement around the globe hunt down criminals. And it's why the University of South Florida Polytechnic has created a laboratory for training tomorrow's law enforcement professionals in the field of computer forensics.
Called the Computer Forensics Laboratory, the newly opened lab focuses on cyber forensics, used to track down people using computers, networks, and the internet for illegal behavior.
"Everybody is online now, even the criminals, and they have become quite savvy at it," said Dr. LeGrande Gardner, a long-time forensic investigator and director of the lab.
"The most important thing law enforcement can do is to be prepared to use technology to catch criminals who are using technology. It takes technological knowledge and skills in order to investigate activities involving technology. This specialty is exploding in the public sector, as well as in the private sector, as more and more businesses use this area of expertise for investigating employees suspected of wrongdoing."
Gardner comes to USFP highly regarded in the area of computer forensics. He served as a special agent with the FBI for several years and then spent 21 years with the Lakeland Police Department. In his last years of active duty, he was concurrently assigned as a task force agent to the FBI's Cyber Crime Unit based in Tampa. In addition to over a decade of experience in this area, he has received more than 800 hours of formal classroom training in this highly specialized field of law enforcement. He holds a PhD from Virginia Polytechnic University.
"We are so fortunate to have Dr. Gardner at Polytechnic," said Dr. Paul Cromwell, professor of criminology and director of USFP's Division of Social Sciences.
"Our criminology department is one of our fastest growing programs, and this area of study is especially strong. Dr. Gardner has trained law enforcement professionals in cyber forensics all over the country and in Canada and is very well known and respected. He is probably one of the top people in the country with this level of expertise."
The USFP Computer Forensics Lab offers an environment that closely replicates the crime labs found in police departments. With 25 student computer workstations and one fully functional forensic workstation, the lab allows students to learn the advanced computer forensic software used in real-world criminal investigations, taking them step by step through the investigation process and protocol. The USFP lab is based on the fact that today's law enforcement graduates need to be more prepared for the real world, Gardner said.
"Most all detectives will soon find themselves tasked with conducting their own computer forensic investigations at one level or another," Gardner said.
"We need law enforcement professionals to be able to sit down at a computer to catch criminals."
For perspective, Gardner recalled when a city's police department would have only one or two forensic people to handle the entire computer forensic load, and sometimes only a couple for an entire county or rural region.
The USFP Lab is a model for how to train the next generation of law enforcement how to conduct much of the same investigations themselves. Central to this initiative is the software for processing and examining data, the most current available and the one used by many agencies to catch the best of them.
"We almost fell behind, as the number of criminals using computers illegally grew so quickly," Gardner said. "Now we are catching up and not just finding the ones who are not computer savvy, but also the smarter ones. In the lab, we train our students as if they were in the role of detective, with the equipment and basic knowledge to run their own cases. The lab is a scaled down version of what they will find in the workplace but the applied principles are the same."
Gardner likens computer forensics to archeology, saying that he feels he is looking into something that happened in the past and systematically digging out the artifacts to reconstruct what took place.
"You leave a history, a track of sorts, every time you use a computer," Gardner said. "You can't use any form of digital technology without leaving some artifact behind."
Only, in the world of criminal investigation, his efforts are more pro-active and could actually protect someone and prevent crime. Much of the more publicized illegal activity using computers involves child pornography, Gardner said. But there are other crimes, as well, such as scams, extortion, theft, drug deals, and even details involving murder.
One of the more notable examples of how computer forensics is used to catch criminals is the case involving the BTK Killer, the serial murderer from Wichita, Kansas. After more than three decades of killing, Dennis Rader was arrested after police were able to find him through computer forensics. Rader wanted to taunt police, so he sent them a file on a computer disk. Rader thought he had deleted all of the information on the disk before saving his own file to it, but he apparently did not know that data remains on a disk, even after deleting. Because of this error, police tracked several key pieces of information off the disk that lead them straight to Rader.
Following this electronic trail is the essence of computer forensics, and the USFP Lab will offer training that is directly applicable to the current field of study used in practice today.
"We're training students and practitioners to be prepared to go out and immediately apply those skills," said Gardner.
Source: USF Polytechnic