Fighting Crime on the Go

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UW Tacoma’s Institute of Technology, in collaboration with Tacoma Police Department, will train crime-fighters in the latest techniques for gathering evidence of crimes from mobile devices.

That date is just about 31 years after the first handheld cellphone was sold somewhere east of the Mississippi River, in March of 1984. That phone was a brick-size Motorola DynaTAC 8000X.

How far we’ve come in 31 years! Today, mobile devices are everywhere: not just phones, but tablets, phablets, smartphones, wearable computers, and on and on. These devices play a role in almost everybody’s lives, in good times and bad – even when crimes or civil violations are being committed.

Their ubiquity has even been addressed by the U.S. Supreme Court. As Chief Justice Roberts wrote in a sweeping decision in June of 2014, mobile devices are “such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy.”

Mobile digital forensics is an emerging field that develops and applies techniques for extracting digital evidence from a mobile device under forensically sound conditions. In the context of rapidly changing technology, prosecutors and detectives face increased scrutiny of digital evidence procedures such as establishing relevance and chain of custody. In its June 2014 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that a warrant is required to search cellphones and other mobile devices collected during an arrest.

The Institute’s new coursework in mobile digital forensics will emphasize the importance of scrupulous care and the use of data collection techniques that adhere to recent court rulings. The courses — offered as electives in the Information Technology degree program — build on students’ programming and computer architecture knowledge through hands-on labs. Students will learn about the forensic tools and utilities required to search for and locate deleted text, dates, images and other stored user data.

Tacoma Police Department Detective John Bair, who will teach the sequence of courses, says, “Those tasked with locating data from cellular phones are conducting many of their cell phone forensic exams through operating-system-based tools and utilities. But what if the artifacts can only be discovered through a more fundamental analysis?” By providing students with actual criminal case examples and applications of forensic methodologies used and challenged in court, they will understand the complex search techniques needed to discover evidence related to past criminal cases. This background will serve as the foundation needed for internships with the Tacoma PD and employment in forensics labs throughout the state and nation.

Police Chief Don Ramsdell and Investigation Bureau Assistant Chief Kathy McAlpine both support the relationship between the Tacoma Police Department and UW Tacoma’s Institute of Technology. “We share a mutual interest in the development of digital forensic capabilities and techniques. To that end, we are partnering to enhance educational offerings at UW Tacoma and exploring other opportunities to pursue mutually beneficial educational and real world improvements in the field of forensic analysis as it relates to mobile devices,” said McAlpine.

Institute Director Rob Friedman sees the partnership as yet another instance of UW Tacoma’s engagement with the city and region to advance information assurance and cyber security. “We’re always seeking industry expertise that enhances our applied research and instruction. Detective Bair is one of only a few people in the country certified and experienced in this space  another distinction for Tacoma.”

Written by: 
John Burkhardt / December 16, 2014
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, Communications, 253-692-4536 or