DSU boasts nationally-acclaimed digital crime lab

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If you’ve ever dreamed about working in a crime lab like the ones seen on “CSI,” you’re in luck.

Dixie State University houses one of the best digital crime labs in the Western U.S., said Gary Cantrell, assistant digital forensics professor.  

Cantrell said students learn to retrieve data from computers, hard drives and cellphones at the Computer Crime Institute. They also learn what’s appropriate to examine, what’s relevant in a case, and how to report their findings in a way that is admissible in court. 

As you first enter the CCI lab in Building D of the University Plaza, you see strewn across work benches the pieces of cellphones from iPhones to Blackberrys, chargers, tablets, computers and hard drives at various stages of dis-assembly.

Other equipment is in the CCI lab too: tools made to read data right off cellphones, machines made to take memory chips off the motherboards of cellphones, more tools to read those memory chips, and computers used to hack into or even bypass the operating system of a phone.

Cantrell explained how they retrieve data from phones, tablets, laptops and hard drives. Whether it requires destroying the device to get to it, or more conservative methods that leave a phone completely reusable, they can do it.

Bryan Pitts, a senior CIT major from St. George, said the preferred methods often leave virtually no trace of the forensic investigators ever having looked at the device. 

Teaching data recovery, however, is only part of the goal of the program.

“We learn what is appropriate to actually examine,” Pitts said. “We also learn detail skills. When we’re looking at the raw data, we know what we’re looking at, and we can see the detail quickly and move on.”

Detail skills help students know what’s relevant to the information they’re looking for and to streamline the process of interpreting the information from the phone or other device, Pitts said.

Pitts also said oftentimes in an investigation, finding data from a device isn’t as important as finding out who created the data.

“The biggest problem with digital forensics is proving who was at the keyboard, not finding the evidence,” Cantrell said.

He compared it to finding a weapon in an investigation. The weapon by itself won’t tell the investigator who the criminal was.

For students in the CCI program, writing about what they find so their findings are admissible in court is an important part of what professors teach in CCI courses, Cantrell said.

“In the end we learn to write everything we’ve learned in simple terms so it can be read and reproduced by anybody,” Pitts said.

The CCI lab at DSU also has technology that you won’t find in any other crime lab in the Western U.S. called “chip-off,” which allows digital forensic investigators to remove a phone’s memory chip and read information stored on the phone, even if the phone is destroyed or unusable, said Joan Runs Through, assistant director of the Computer Crime Institute.

“Here’s one cool [case] recently: Someone was running from the police and took their cellphone and chucked it into a lawn mower,” Runs Through said. “They sent us just the motherboard; it was split in half, but the chip was still good, and we got everything off of it.”

Police forensics isn’t the only job available to people in this field, though, Runs Through said. Colleges and high schools are looking for people with digital forensic training.

“Schools are understanding ‘OK, we have the right to confiscate the phone, but do we have the right to actually go through the phone?’” Runs Through said.

Having employees with this training helps schools stay within legal boundaries. Companies such as Best Buy, Wal-Mart, Las Vegas casinos, and others also have their own forensics departments, looking for people with these skills, Runs Through said. 

For more information about the DSU Computer Crime Institute, visit www.dsu-cci.com