More than ever before, criminals are communicating with each other using computer-driven smart phones, tablets, cameras and even home gaming systems.
As a result, agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation are combing through more data yearly than is contained in 1050 Libraries of Congress.
Lucky for them, the FBI has a top notch Computer Analysis Response Team or (CART) team that started here in San Diego
Across the country, the FBI has 500 specially-trained cyber sleuths in 56 field offices. Those detectives work to outsmart, out-hack and expose criminals involved in white collar crime like former Congressman Duke Cunningham or an online predator trying to find a child victim.
Special Agent James Mailloux is also Acting Director of the FBI’s Regional Computer Forensics Laboratory.
"It’s a big puzzle you get to crack open and figure out how things went together,” Mailloux said. “Figure out how to get the data the right way and in a forensic manner that will stand up in court.”
His task force of FBI-trained federal, state and local police personnel works in a secure, secluded area of the FBI complex. They’re often harvesting digital evidence no matter what a suspect tries to do to destroy it.
A broken, burned or submerged hard drive? No big deal for these experts.
If the owner of a cell phone tries to erase its contents remotely, the FBI has a solution – a clear box that blocks cell phone signals as detectives mine the phone’s secrets.
But their most powerful weapons are a keyboard and their wit. They work to invent ways to decrypt and expose hidden evidence of criminal activity on computers, tablets, phones, even Playstation consoles.
“We don’t know how to do it until we have to try,” Mailloux said. “Sometimes the tools we have don’t work and we have to develop new tools or find new tools.”
“We are always trying to stay even with the bad guys. Even a step ahead"
While they’ve nailed drug dealers and embezzlers there’s one thing this team can’t do – move with the speed of a television show like NBC’s “Law and Order: SVU”
“We call it the CSI Effect,” Mailloux explains. “We have to tone people’s expectations down. Even sometimes detectives who come to the front door with their computer evidence and say 'Can you give this to me in an hour'?"
It often takes at least an hour just to photograph the digital device.
The role and importance of the FBI CART Team is expected to expand with the use of more digital devices especially smart phones which are computers themselves.