ST. GEORGE — Gathering evidence at a crime scene is key to solving a case, and Dixie State University now offers a course to focus on finding evidence on cellphones.
As part of its Criminal Justice program, the school offers courses in digital forensics, which is the extracting evidence from electronic devices.
"If somebody goes missing, first thing they want to look at is their cellphone," said William Matthews, director of the Computer Crime Institute at Dixie State College. "If they catch a bank robber, the first thing they'll want to grab is their cellphone. A suicide? The first thing they want to see is their cellphone."
Matthews said he saw a need for the program a number of years ago. However, only a few agencies, such as the FBI and NSA, were doing similar types of work.
In 2010, Dixie State University was awarded an Education Excellence Federal grant to establish a digital forensics program. The university said it's the only one in the state, and one of only two programs in the country.
With the funding in place, Matthews set up the program, focusing on retrieving data from cellphones that can help law enforcement agencies in their investigations.
The phones are processed quickly. Matthews and his students have received hundreds of cellphones of every make, model, and operating system from agencies all over the country.
"We specialize in cellphones that are 'problem' phones," he said. "Phones that are either password protected, broken, or some other circumstance that makes it so that law enforcement can't read the phone."
We specialize in cellphones that are 'problem' phones. Phones that are either password protected, broken, or some other circumstance that makes it so that law enforcement can't read the phone.
–William Matthews, director of the Computer Crime Institute
They use the chip-off technique, where they remove the memory chip from the phone and examine that separately from the operating system of the phone, which allows them to bypass the password.
"So if it's successful, we'll get all the call history, all the SMS messages, the MMS messages, videos, pictures — everything that's stored on the phone," Matthews said.
All that data is then copied and returned to the police agency conducting the investigation.
Matthews said he remembered an underage sex crime case that was a she said-he said situation. The cellphone was password protected, so there wasn't much law enforcement could do.
"So the phone sat in evidence for maybe a year, and then they heard about our lab," he said. "They sent the cellphone, we extracted the chip, which by-passed the password, and we downloaded all the data off the phone. We recovered videos and pictures and everything off the phone, and then sent them back to the officer, and subsequently the man was charged."
In most cases, the cellphone data isn't the main piece of evidence, but it was in that particular case. Most of the time, information on the phones is used to develop other leads, Matthews said.
The technology to examine the cellphones is very expensive and not within the budgets of most law enforcement agencies. Plus, they may need to use it maybe every few months, so buying it isn't worth it.
"By having the lab in the state, not every agency needs to buy it, they can send the phones to us and we can examine them," Matthews said.
The primary focus of the lab is to support the Utah law enforcement agencies, but they do also receive phones from other states. The examination of the phone is done free of charge in the lab.
Matthews' digital forensics courses have become very popular among students majoring in criminal justice. He said he has five classes this semester, and they are all full.
"Oh it's huge," said Kalea Traveller, a digital forensics student at DSU. "I think this is the future of where's it's going because everything is becoming digital and technology is just moving so quickly that this is going to be a really important job in the near future."
"I think it's incredibly important," said criminal justice major Teresa Ortiz. "It's amazing to me that police forces don't have the capability of doing this."
Not only are students learning the latest techniques, police officers from around the nation are taking courses at the lab as well.
"This is sort of adding additional tools to our tool belt to be able to help us solve the cases that involve technology, which of course is more and more prevalent," said St. George Police Detective Choli Ence.