(WAFF) - Residents in the Tennessee Valley are safer from tech thieves and violent criminals, thanks to a new, well-armed and local adversary.
A new lab is making it easier for authorities across the region to track and attack crimes like ID theft, skimming and child pornography.
It's the only facility of its kind in the southeast, and it's located on Redstone Arsenal.
Staying one step ahead of criminals is a challenge for police when it comes to the ever growing, evolving world of technology, but that's exactly what the new Tennessee Valley Regional Computer Forensics Laboratory (TVRCFL) is designed to do.
It's one of only 17 labs in the country. It serves as a full-service digital forensics lab and training center devoted entirely to the examination of digital evidence.
"The crimes run the gamut. They range from homicides to child pornography and fraud- any type of crime that you might imagine where a digital media device like a smart phone, tablet, laptop or computer is utilized to facilitate the commission of that crime, we can now bring it here to the Tennessee Valley RCFL to get digital media exploitation," explained Johnnie Sharp Jr., special agent in charge of the FBI's Birmingham Division, who oversees the TVRCFL.
The lab director, supervisory special agent Todd Spiker, showed us the newest and latest technology used to get evidence off different devices like hard drives.
He also explained how information is pulled from other devices like cellphones and skimmers, which are placed at gas pumps and ATMs to steal personal data.
"We solder small wires about this size to the circuit boards of cell phones and we're able to extract data," Spiker stated. "We developed a technique to be able to extract the payload and then find out what last devices were connected to it."
"From a national security standpoint, if you have a national security related crime such as a counter terrorism or counterintelligence event, there are protocols in place here, so we can exploit those types of devices at a classified level," Sharp added.
The Huntsville Police Department and Madison County Sheriff's Office were the first agencies to sign on to have investigators working at the lab. The Alabama National Guard Counterdrug Program and the Etowah County Sheriff's Office have also joined.
Training is intensive and expensive to get certified to handle digital evidence. The FBI provides that training to those assigned to the TVRCFL.
"Essentially, the local agencies pay for the salary and benefits of their employees and the FBI picks up the tab for all of their training and certifications and we do that on an annual basis to keep them current," Sharp stated.
Huntsville Police Chief Mary McMurray says the department has been successful in taking down some of the most violent offenders in the city, but pointed to a "gap."
"It's the ability to take things apart to track illegal use of computers and cell phones," he revealed. "We can put them at the scene of a crime by tagging a cell phone. We can take a cell phone and back trace where it's been for any period of time. You need to know what you're doing and then you need to be able to go to court to make it defensible. The feds are the best at that."
The chief added that the department had been looking at building a computer forensics lab and putting a unit together, which would have cost a lot on money. But now, there's the new FBI lab on the arsenal, allowing them to do the work they need to do.
"I was able to place one investigator there and he is now training other investigators in our department," the chief stated. "The technology is just sweeping us. We're having a difficult time keeping up with it. It's the same problem across the country. Every police department is dealing with it. This puts us in front of the problem instead of trying to catch up with it."
Police say the lab is a "force multiplier."
"We find ourselves in an area of technical types of cybercrimes to where they prey upon our children, they prey upon corporations to delete their ability to have their files and their security efforts to it's going to be a big team effort here," said Madison County Sheriff Blake Dorning.
The southeast did not have a regional computer forensic lab prior to the opening of the Tennessee Valley RCFL.
"This is a collaborative effort, we're hoping to augment the other participating agencies and their personnel to grow our actual footprint in the Huntsville area," Special Agent Sharp said. "Huntsville was a natural fit when you look at the technology and the cyber base here, coupled with the relationship the FBI has with the Army and Redstone Arsenal."
The lab has three full time FBI staff members and they're looking to add more participating agencies to grow their footprint in the Huntsville area.
NCIS is in the process of coming on board. Talks are also underway with the Madison Police Department, officials said. The FBI wants law enforcement to use the lab because it's a tremendous resource located in their backyard. It's open to all agencies in Alabama and Southern Tennessee, to make use of the technology to help with cases and to staff with members of their departments.
Every department across the Tennessee Valley has been offered the opportunity to join at any time.
A larger facility will be built at Redstone Arsenal in the future to allow for more space and more examiners.
"What it's designed to be is a catch the bad guy and it makes our community safer and our country," Dorning said.
"There's a dark web out there being used by criminals and it's not being watched or policed. It's being used for narcotics and primarily pornography, child pornography," McMurray added. "When these sex offenders show up in our community, we need to be able to prosecute them and take their computers apart to find out who they've been transmitting this pornography to and take down entire networks of these people. This is where the FBI can offer prosecution assistance and where we can track these computers."
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