If somebody goes missing, first thing they want to look at is their cellphone. 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. —William Matthews
ST. GEORGE — Gathering evidence at a crime scene is key to solving a case. Officers meticulously look for clues, big and small.
These days, one of the first things they look for are cellphones. That’s where Dixie State University comes in.
As part of its criminal justice program, the school offers courses in digital forensics, which is the extraction of 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 University. “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.”
Mathews saw a need for this years ago. But only a few agencies, such as the FBI and the National Security Agency, were doing this kind of work. And the turnaround time was long.
In 2010, Dixie State University was awarded an Education Excellence federal grant to establish a digital forensics program. The university says it’s the only one in the state, and one of only two such 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. Mathews 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."
They use the chip-off technique, where they remove the memory chip from the phone and examine that apart 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,” Mathews said.
All that data are then copied and returned to the police agency conducting the investigation.
Mathews said he remembered an underage sex crime case that was a "he said-she said" case. The cellphone was password protected, so there wasn’t much that 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 bypassed 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 aren’t the smoking gun, but it was in this case. Most of the time, information on the phones is used to develop other leads, Mathews said.
The technology to examine the cellphones is very expensive and not within the budgets of most law enforcement agencies. Plus, most agencies wouldn't likely use it often enough to justify the cost.
“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,” Mathews said.
The primary focus of the lab is to support Utah police agencies, but they do get phones from other states. The examination of the phone is done free of charge.
Mathews' digital forensics courses have become very popular among students majoring in criminal justice. He has five classes this semester, and they're all full.
"Oh it's huge,” said Kalea Traveller, a digital forensics student at Dixie. “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.”Comment on this story
"I think it's incredibly important,” added 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,” St. George police detective Choli Ence said.