Law enforcement agencies throughout Southern California now have a new tool for fighting crime: a new regional computer forensics crime lab in Orange.
Inside, a blue machine about the size of a box of Girl Scout cookies whirs as it quickly copies a hard drive.
In a room down the hall, computers can extract that data and file them into categories, including e-mail, pictures and documents.
More and more, this is how law enforcement investigates crime. And the new Orange County Regional Computer Forensics Lab lets local law enforcement team up with the FBI to trace the digital footprints of criminals.
"There is not a case that we have now where you do not have a hard drive, a thumb drive, a cell phone or some other mechanism for either communicating or storing data," said FBI Director Robert Mueller at the lab's unveiling yesterday.
"I really think this is the only true chance we have to keep up with technology when we deal with the criminals," says Jason Weiss, the lab's director. "This is one of the few areas in time where the criminals can go out and buy better equipment sometimes than we can. They can run out to the store with a credit card, buy themselves a computer and start counterfeiting money right away. I mean, for us to buy computers, we have to go through an entire procurement system. It’s a big difference."
And a lot of police departments don’t have the money amid budget cuts to make that investment.
The new $7 million lab – which has a 10-year lease at its Orange location – lets local police and the FBI work together to crack cases. Anaheim Police Chief John Welter says it will help tremendously.
"There isn’t a police department in this county that isn’t losing funding because of the budget," Welter says. "The state is – you know, who knows what’s going to happen in the next year? We potentially could see 40,000 prisoners hit the streets throughout our communities. And yet a lot of criminals are using computers to either engage in criminal activity, cover up criminal activity, you know, leverage criminal activity. So the sooner that we can get to them, the fewer victims there are."
Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas – whose small high-tech crime unit was absorbed into this lab – says technology is the common thread that links today’s criminals, from white collar crime to homicides.
"Gang members use wireless devices and the Internet to support their criminal organizations. Pedophiles hide their pornography and use all kinds of separate drives to hide what they’re doing," Rackauckas says. "All of the various kinds of cases – major fraud cases now tend to involve terabytes of electronic and digital information."
That’s where the regional computer forensics lab comes in. It can process that information more quickly.
But it’s hard to stay ahead. The Orange County lab is the 15th in the country, but Weiss says it's still a challenge because technology changes so quickly. He says the labs were designed to help chase that technology.
"Because when you have 25 examiners in the same space, as opposed to having five or six with the FBI or four with the DA’s office or two with the sheriff’s, now we will allow some of our folks to begin specializing in a way that most offices can’t specialize," Weiss says. "We can create our own experts in cell phone technology, Macintosh, Linux, Unix, Windows technology. This is a tremendous advantage that we’re going to have in this area in terms of cyber crime fighting over the next 10 years."
San Diego has had a similar lab for about a decade now. Albuquerque will get one in a few months.
The labs aren’t used only for investigations. Participating law enforcement agencies can send officers for training, so they have a better idea of how to look for digital evidence when they’re in the field, trying to solve crimes.