The inside of Utica College’s Economic Crime, Justice Studies, and Cybersecurity Building. (Photo: Utica College)

The scene was an equivocal death in an apartment. Not far from the body was a computer, which was still on. And on that screen was information about causes and manners of death—different things that could end a life. It was clearly of interest to the investigation, considering the condition of the body.

But in the 1990s, the Utica Police Department (Utica, NY) was unclear about what to do with the desktop computer, recalls Anthony Martino, onp of the investigators at the scene. You definitely didn’t want to unplug it, but you didn’t necessarily want to just turn it off and lose access to it, either.

“There were things on the screen that were obviously of interest,” Martino, now retired from the Utica force, recalled in an interview with Forensic Magazine. “But we thought, what do we do with this thing?”

Martino, who had a computer science background in college, found a way to properly collect it. Then the detectives sent it to the only computer forensics laboratory in the state, run by the New York State Police. And they waited. And waited. Years passed.

Amid the long wait, the police brass pulled Martino into an office, asking how they could prevent future waits. Thus began the Utica Police Department’s digital forensic laboratory, in a supply closet with less than 100 square feet of space, and a single workstation. Federal grants and some assistance further established the unit. Other agencies in the region lined up to have their items processed. The digital forensics unit was moved to a bigger space at the Utica PD, which it promptly outgrew. When Martino retired from the force in 2013, the laboratory (and its expenses) came with him, to Utica College down the road. Now known as the Northeast Cybersecurity and Forensic Center, it occupies a state-of-the-art facility with all the latest tools, and performs analyses for entities both public and private.

“It just took off,” Martino recalls.

Utica isn’t alone. The growth of digital forensic evidence has kept pace with society. Seemingly everyone from crime’s victims to its perpetrators has a mobile device like a smartphone. The data stored on these portable devices can be a virtual treasure trove providing personal information, geolocation, communications, and behavioral patterns that could connect the dots of crime, from motive, to modus operandi, and back again.

Accordingly, the digital forensics niche is expected to expand like a balloon, by millions of workers and billions of dollars, in nearly every metric imaginable, over the next few years.

“This is a very important area now, because the computer has become a normal tool people have pretty much everywhere,” said Sundaraja Sitharama Iyengar, director and Ryder professor of the School of Computing and Information Sciences at Florida International University. “There is a very important area for training future generations of scientists and engineers.”

Public growth

Keeping pace with the explosive growth of digital forensic evidence in virtually every kind of crime, the FBI is opening two new digital forensic hubs to assist local and regional agencies with investigations spanning from child pornography to murder.

The Tennessee Valley Regional Computer Forensics Laboratory (TVRCFL) held its grand opening on May 1 in Huntsville, Ala. It is the first new laboratory in the RCFL system in nine years—but it will be shortly joined by a counterpart in Boston in coming months, according to officials.

The two additional facilities bring the total number of labs in the program up to 17, from the single pilot project laboratory in San Diego initiated in 1999.

The TVRCFL in Alabama is currently located in temporary facilities. However, the $3.4-million lab will transition to a permanent building on the Redstone Arsenal military base in another 3 to 5 years, according to officials.

The FBI provides the facility, equipment and training for the TVRCFL. Staffing will come from both the Bureau and four agencies in the area: the Huntsville Police Department, Madison County Sheriff’s Office, the Alabama National Guard Counterdrug Program and the Etowah County Sheriff’s Office. The prosecution team handling many of the cases is the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the North District of Alabama.

“Prior to the TVRCFL, we did not have sufficient computer forensic capability to address the proliferation of cases involving digital media,” said Johnnie Sharp Jr., the special agent in charge of the FBI’s field office in Birmingham, Ala. “Today, thanks to the TVRCFL, law enforcement throughout Alabama and southern Tennessee can significantly exchange their capabilities by partnering with one of the world’s most advanced state-of-the-art digital forensics examination facilities.”

Already the facility has been active in completing investigations. For instance, the analysts were involved in the so-called “Operation Southern Impact II” investigation, which arrested 12 and rescued four children who were allegedly being sexually exploited.

The other service areas that have been established since the 2002 formal founding of the RCFL program include: Chicago, Greater Houston, Heart of America (Missouri), Intermountain West (Utah), Kentucky, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Texas, Northwest (Oregon), Orange County (California), Philadelphia, Rocky Mountain (Colorado), San Diego, Silicon Valley (California) and Western New York.

In schools

But it’s not just the FBI and other huge organizations that are investing in the digital forensics space. Other law enforcement agencies at the state and local level have had to grow, too.

In parallel, the institutions of higher education have more than kept pace. In every corner of the country, centers and programs have sprouted up for training, and specialized degrees. From four-year colleges to local programs offering associates’ degrees, there is an absolute skyrocketing of interest in digital detection and cybersecurity.

In the second quarter of this year alone, new programs have been announced at a handful of universities.

Alderson Broaddus University, a private four-year school in West Virginia, announced last month that it would start a cybersecurity major in the fall. Ross Brittain, the dean of the school’s College of Science, Technology and Mathematics, told a local media outlet that their planning was based on 25,000 new job openings in cybersecurity in 2024, as predicted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“That was before all of the high-profile cyberattacks on Target, EquiFax, and the (2016) presidential election,” said Brittain.

Other Bureau of Labor Statistics predict that the industry boom has already begun in earnest. Some 28,500 information security analysts will be hired in the U.S. between 2016 and 2026, according to related estimates.

Still, other pundits envision a growth of the industry from $4.62 billion in 2017, to a whopping $9.68 billion in 2022, according to some market forecast reports.

Western Nevada College in Carson City cited that growth in announcing their cybersecurity program, also planned for the fall.

“Being as impactful as cybersecurity is and as much as it’s been in the news lately, it was the next step we needed to take,” said Dave Riske, a computer information technology instructor at Western Nevada, in a local interview. “It’s a grander world now, with respect to more and more of our resources—critical resources—tied to a network.”

Iyengar, of FIU, has referred to the digital forensic experts-in-training as “cyber warriors” who will defend important valuables and classified information from hackers and thieves.

“This is a very hot topic now; every university is spending time and money on it,” said Iyengar. “Everybody wants to get into many of these areas. But we want to make sure they have the necessary training and background—and a quality program to do that.”

FIU’s enrollment has exploded. The cybersecurity and data science and related programs have quadrupled over the last several years, Iyengar added in his interview with Forensic Magazine.

The growth at Utica College has been absolutely “exponential,” explained Martino. More than 1,000 cyber students are currently at the school and its state-of-the-art facility. The work requests still come in from law enforcement agencies, he said, but since they’re no longer a governmental entity, the Northeast Cybersecurity and Forensics Center also accepts private casework, which helps pay to keep the operations going. That private casework has just eclipsed the amount of work being done for public entities, said Martino.

The success in Utica is based the cooperation between government, academia and private entities.

“Everyone right now wants to be in this space because it’s attracting students, and students who get jobs,” said Martino. “We’ve found a formula that works.”

Shifting dynamics

For people already in the field, it’s not enough to stand still. The digital forensics field is so dynamic that today’s freshly trained expert who emerges with a diploma could have crucial techniques lacking in this skillset just months later.

“In the olden days, it wasn’t that much of a challenge,” said Iyengar, who has spent decades developing computer science programs before his latest stint at FIU. “Now what you teach the students six months back, that becomes outdated because the technological innovations are changing so rapidly.”

Just cataloging the breakneck pace of changes in the cyber sphere is a gargantuan task. One of the locations trying to do so is the University of New Haven. Ibrahim Baggili, the co-director and founder of the Cyber Forensics Research and Education Group at the school, and his team have published about the possibilities of hacking drones, and other growing challenges facing experts. To account for the constantly changing dynamics, the New Haven team has established the Artifact Genome Project in an attempt to foster global cooperation and cross-sharing of incremental discoveries.

“This is our version of shouting over the cubicle wall in the lab—‘Hey, do you know where I can find this?’” Baggili told Forensic Magazine. “But now, instead of asking four people that are in one lab, you might be asking 200 or 300 or 1,000 people, because it’s that much easier to get the information back.”

The experts at New Haven have also balanced the conceptual with the real-world applications, like when they caught an alleged “upskirt voyeur” through a local Connecticut criminal investigation.

Of course, some cases remain unresolved—no matter how much the technology changes. The mysterious death in the Utica apartment about 20 years ago, with its suspicious connection to the data on the computer screen, was never prosecuted, according to Martino.

“In those early days, in the early 2000s, we only did forensics on computer crimes,” he said. “Now, it’s everything—from a shoplifting case, to a homicide, to a robbery, to a rape. It’s not just things that are unique to the Internet. We’ve come a long way in just a short time.”