SALT LAKE CITY — It’s the same technology that is used to track terrorists and to build cases against child pornographers, but increasingly it is becoming a factor in missing children’s cases.
Computer forensics technology has helped to locate a number of missing kids across the country and factored prominently in a high-profile Utah case, and a Utah-based group is now seeking nonprofit status to aid in more missing cases in the state and across the country.
In August, Indica Huddleston vanished from her Alpine home but was found and brought home safely more than a week later by FBI agents in the Salt Lake Valley.
Bryan Huddleston, Indica’s father, now attributes his daughter being found to the work of a couple experts at Decipher Forensics in Orem.
“Their ability to get into the data and find and decrypt it and find deleted data — it’s impressive,” Huddleston said. “And it was very effective.”
Huddleston feared the worst during his daughter’s disappearance, even the potential for foul play.
With days passing, no signs of his daughter and with police having no luck, Huddleston went a different route. A private investigator recommended Decipher Forensics’ services.
The Orem-based lab helps families and police agencies recover data, image computers and dig into smartphones. Huddleston still had Indica’s phone, and he supplied it to Decipher Forensics.
“We go through it, and there’s a wealth of information on that as to what’s been going on the past couple weeks,” recalled company co-founder Mike Johnson.
Johnson identified two likely options — including someone who was using a false identity to communicate with Indica on Skype.
“It was definitely either catfishing or she was being lured away,” Johnson said.
The other option, Johnson said, was a lesser-known friend in the Salt Lake Valley who had been texting the teenage Huddleston.
“He was like, ‘hey I’m excited for you to stay up here,’ ” Johnson said. “And she’s like ‘I am too.’ ”
"I think the analogy now is different than it was 20 years ago, where it may have been frowned upon to go through your child's journal every night after they go to bed. Now, it's like putting your kid out with loaded guns in the alleyway. It's good to keep an eye on them."
Johnson and partner Trent Leavitt turned the information over to FBI agents, who had recently joined the case. Those agents located Indica just hours later, fortunately with the friend.
“It’s hard to imagine the feeling of relief and joy that I experienced when they found Indica,” Huddleston said.
Since the Huddlestons, the number of missing cases handled by this lab has ballooned — a function of its success and police resources that are already stretched too thin. Over the past six months, the lab has worked on 45 nonprofit missing cases in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Kentucky, Indiana, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Utah.
As a business, Leavitt said Decipher Forensics is finding it hard to stay up with the missing person caseload, which involves a lot of free and discounted work, as it tries to pay their own bills.
“Our resources have been stretched thin,” Leavitt said.
Thus, the idea of the nonprofit Window Foundation was born.
In partnership with the Center for Search and Investigations (CFSI), Leavitt and others who are organizing the foundation hope to help out in significantly more missing children cases through corporate donations.
“It’s going to have to get large, because we have so many kids that are going missing,” said Paul MacArthur, a Provo-based lawyer who is also involved with the foundation.
The forensic techs document what they find on computers, tablets and phones. After basically hacking into the devices and gaining “developer access,” they then image the devices and use forensics programs to search for patterns, suspicious contacts and clues.
Huddleston said Johnson and Leavitt helped his family, and he hopes they can help a lot of others.
“Tremendous, great, great people that really care and are making a difference,” Huddleston said.
Johnson said parents shouldn’t consider it too intrusive to monitor who their children are talking to online, considering the potential dangers.
“I think the analogy now is different than it was 20 years ago, where it may have been frowned upon to go through your child’s journal every night after they go to bed,” Johnson said. “Now, it’s like putting your kid out with loaded guns in the alleyway. It’s good to keep an eye on them.”
Sometimes, those secret relationships turn into runaway and kidnap situations, he said.
He recommends parents install monitoring programs like Mobile Spy and PhoneSheriff on new phones before giving them to their children, and installing OpenDNS on home routers.
OpenDNS redirects traffic from the router and does filtering and monitoring for a $20 per-year fee, Johnson said.
“It’s hard to keep track of for even someone who is doing it all the time, but at least doing something is better than doing nothing,” Johnson said.