Champlain College Opens Digital Forensics Center

Vermont law enforcement first used digital forensics in 1996to investigate a child pornography case; Burlington Police Chief Michael Schirling told a crowd gathered Monday at Champlain College.

“When we had to do the very first digital investigation, we sent away for software and had it overnighted to us,” Schirling said. “It came on a 3½-inch floppy diskette, and we didn’t have a duel-drive computer — two 3½-inch diskettes — to be able to copy an image from one to the other.

“We had to borrow it from IBM,” he said.

Schirling used the anecdote to illustrate the advancement of digital forensics in Vermont, which continued Monday with the official opening of the Patrick Leahy Center for Digital Investigation at Champlain College.

“Today, it’s simply staggering to see both the growth in technology, and the growth in our collective capacity to analyze potential evidence, that exists as a result of that technology,” Schirling said.

The new digital forensic lab, about 1,200 square feet on the third floor of the college’s Miller Center at Lakeside Campus, provides a place for students to train with professional investigators. It cost about $150,000 to build and outfit, college spokesman Stephen Mease said.

Students will use the lab to perform research and manage backup files for police; provide free data recovery services for classmates who lose files; and provide, for a fee, forensic investigative work for clients, says digital forensic professor Jonathan Rajewski.

“The Vermont Agency of Human Resources has enlisted students to help investigate civil cases,” Rajewski said.

“This lab is like a real forensic lab you’d see on ‘NCIS,’ the shows like ‘CSI;’ this really is run the same exact way,” he exclaimed, referring to popular crime procedurals on network television.

The college also intends to hold digital forensic training sessions for law-enforcement officers in the lab.

About 20 students, most of them enrolled in the college’s digital forensic program, have been working in the lab since it opened unofficially in September.  The college founded its digital forensic program in 2002.

Schirling and Champlain College President Dave Finney credited Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., with securing earmarks to pay for the state’s digital forensic resources. At Monday’s dedication ceremony, Leahy said law enforcement needs new technologies to solve 21st century crimes.

“Now, of course, the robber might be 10,000 miles away, and doing it with a keystroke, at 2 o’clock in the morning, and taking out millions of dollars,” Leahy said.

In 2010, Leahy helped secure a three-year, $500,000 U.S. Department of Justice grant to provide educational and technical support to Vermont law enforcement in the field of digital forensics. In 2006, he helped obtain a $650,000 grant to staff the digital forensics program at Champlain College and fund digital forensic investigations conducted by Vermont law enforcement.

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