Dixie State digital forensics crime lab works hundreds of cases around the world

Picture of an examiner using the chip-off method in the Digital Forensics Crime Lab, unknown date | Photo courtesy of Dixie State University Marketing and Communications, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Dixie State University’s digital forensics crime lab is helping authorities gather and analyze information from cyberspace and turning digital discoveries into real-world solutions.

In the age of smartphones and social media, solving crimes using digital evidence is becoming more common. Director Mark Spooner and lead examiner Joan Runs Through have opened their services to law enforcement and students alike.

Spooner told St. George News that last year the crime lab was approved through the university and the Washington County Attorney’s Office to allow students to physically conduct research in the lab. Starting last year, the crime lab opened its doors to students interested in conducting digital research.

Students will share their research later this year.

“It gives the students a great opportunity to be hands on, so when they do graduate it does differentiate them from a lot of folks,” Spooner said.

The university is still in the process of deciding how these research opportunities will fit into the criminal justice degree requirements, he said, but students interested in working with the crime lab will be held to high standards.

Students who want to part of the program will be required to have at least a 3.0 GPA and have a sit-down interview with Spooner.

He said although he would love to have as many research projects going on as possible, it’s not practical and could take away from both the research and the students, so for now the crime lab is looking for a handful of students to conduct research this fall.

“It would be nice if we could get a couple of research projects going, but I don’t want to jeopardize the research or students’ other classes,” he said.

An examiner uses the chip-off method in the digital forensics crime lab, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Dixie State University Marketing and Communications, St. George News

The lab was established in 2010 and began work in 2011. Spooner said that from the beginning the crime lab was set apart from other digital forensic labs. There was a need for examiners who could extract information from phones and other mobile devices, but more than that, there was a need for “a trusted, noncommercial entity to do this kind of work for law enforcement.”

Runs Through was one of the first examiners hired to work at the crime lab; she said the lab was given a $1 million earmark from then U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett’s office to begin research and obtain the necessary equipment.

The equipment and training are pricey, she said, and local law enforcement doesn’t have the funds immediately available to purchase a $10,000 machine and undergo the $5,000 training to use it, so the DFCL agreed to be a centralized location for law enforcement to use digital forensics in its investigations.

Spooner said the crime lab met the needs of local law enforcement and continues to help law enforcement from all over the world with an average of 300 cases each year. The lab has also been used to assist officers in the investigations connected to former NFL star Aaron Hernandez’s murder trail in 2013 and the kidnapping and murder of David Heisler in 2016.

The crime lab has been an integral part of offering chip-off training to 110 law enforcement agencies, including the U.S. Army Military Police, the FBI and the St. George Police. Chip-off training encompasses a number of topics like cell phone repair, mobile device disassembly and binary image extraction.

Despite more people using the chip-off method and knowledge of mobile devices becoming more common, the lab continues to remain on the cutting edge of digital forensics because of its proximity to the university and participation in academic programs, Spooner said.

The crime lab is always looking to expand and has started to look toward the digital forensics of cars and has a certified fraud examiner on staff as well.

Runs Through said she and her students have been looking into devices like Amazon’s Alexa, smart televisions and smart toys. She calls this the ‘“internet of things” and believes it “is probably our next frontier.”

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