Phone Forensics: Diving Into Digital Evidence
Last Updated: Wednesday November 22, 2023
This is the seventh installment in a series of profiles featuring DEA special agents, diversion investigators, chemists, and more. Learn about the tough but fulfilling, fascinating, and vital work these DEA personnel do, as well as the many different ways to get involved in fighting drug misuse.
For our seventh profile, we will be interviewing Senior Examiner Laura from the Digital Evidence Lab.
What motivated you to join the DEA?
When I was in college, I knew I wanted to end up in law enforcement forensics. I was not interested in the other options at the time such as incident response, network forensics, or private/contract work. There are a lot of different opportunities for digital forensics in law enforcement, but the types of cases vary between organizations. I had previously worked other case types that were emotionally draining and I was looking forward to a change of ‘scenery’ while still working on criminal cases. The diversity of case types and the ability to travel globally were major selling points for me. I also really enjoy working with case agents in the field, either when I’m on-site with them or analyzing evidence that they couldn’t get into.
What does an average day on the job look like for you?
There’s a lot of variety in an average day. Generally, at our lab we support law enforcement investigations by acquiring (copying and preserving), processing, and analyzing digital evidence such as computers, phones, and servers. Any given day could be a combination of these. We occasionally get called to testify in court as expert witnesses.
I have specialized training in mobile device processing and analysis, so those are the types of exhibits I typically handle now. In addition to case work, my group and I have been working to develop and present training to the field (non-digital forensics folks) regarding digital evidence and mobile devices. The schedule at the lab is flexible but we have core hours during the day when we can be reached. Most recently I’ve been focusing more on training than exhibit handling, but when I have mobile devices, I check them to see if any are finished processing so I can review the data. I make sure to communicate with the submitting case agent to find out what kind of information they’re specifically interested in. Report writing and detailed notes are part of our everyday life at the lab.
What has been your proudest moment at the DEA thus far?
My proud moments come anytime I help someone. I reach out to colleagues to get their input if I’m stuck on something, so it’s nice to be able to return the favor. It’s difficult to describe, but I am also proud when I am able to get into a particularly difficult device- whether it’s locked, encrypted, broken and needs repair, or generally troublesome. I try not to give up easily on difficult devices and it is always nice when perseverance pays off.
How can young people who are interested in becoming a forensic examiner at DEA best prepare themselves for the positions?
DEA has three different forensic disciplines: digital, chemistry, friction ridge/fingerprints; first you’ll have to decide what kind of forensics you’re interested in. If you choose digital forensics, you should be familiar with the fundamental principles for digital forensics. A passion and willingness to learn are really important in our field because technology changes so fast, you have to be willing to keep up. We have a lot of processes and procedures that require a keen attention to detail. Being a team player is helpful because we rarely work alone, and constantly talk to colleagues about what we’re working on. Other than those skills, a degree or certifications would help set you apart from other applicants but aren’t a requirement to start working at the lab. We have a robust training program here; we’re willing to teach you as long as you’re willing to learn.
The synthetic opioid fentanyl – often mixed into other drugs – is now responsible for tens of thousands of American deaths per year. How has the fentanyl epidemic changed your job?
There have been drastic changes in the amount of evidence we’re seeing related to fentanyl. When someone overdoses, we often get their phone for any number of reasons: to get information about the source of the drug (the potential dealer, recent contacts, unknown numbers, locations, etc.) or to figure out who it belonged to if there were multiple victims. Fentanyl has made drug use so much more dangerous than it was to begin with and we see the unfortunate consequences all too often here at the lab.
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Aug. 31 Profile: Fighting the Jalisco Cartel as an Intelligence Analyst
Sept. 14 Profile: Working With His Wife to Dismantle Drug-Peddling Prison Gang
Sept. 28 Profile: Meth Hidden in a Gas Tank? Helping DEA as a Chemist
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