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Cybercrime lab coming to UA

Maria Beddingfield

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In partnership with the University of Alabama Police Department, Kathryn Seigfried-Spellar, assistant professor in the department of criminal justice, will create the University’s first Cybercrime Lab, funded by a $60,000 grant from the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs. The lab will serve as a space for University professors, UAPD and other task forces around the state to access, supplement and analyze data involving criminal cases.

University of Alabama Police Chief Tim Summerlin said UAPD has worked on establishing a cybercrime lab for the past several years. Their goal with the University is to combine their resources to analyze forensic digital evidence that will support law investigation of crimes involving digital devices.

“Digital technology is continually evolving and is intertwined in almost every facet of modern life,” Summerlin said. “Our expectation is that the unit and the personnel assigned therein will have to continually develop new skills to adapt to the ever-changing nature of the devices with which people interact on a day-to-day basis.”

Seigfried-Spellar and Summerlin said the lab will be used for faculty research projects relating to cybercrime. Julie Hopper, a junior majoring in criminal justice, said though the lab will ultimately serve a region larger than just the University, it will benefit faculty members here previously relied on outside sources.

“So rather than sending evidence to a state or federal agency for analysis, the new lab will give them the ability to process evidence and gain quicker results which could help expedite the trial ?process,” Hopper said.

Criminal incidents involving digital evidence are increasing with greater access to digital technology. Crimes do not have to be perpetrated with an electronic device in order to generate evidence, since circumstantial or supporting evidence can still be gathered from electronics left at crime scenes. The grant from ADECA is enough for the program to take root, but it won’t be enough for the program to grow and develop, Seigfried-Spellar said.

“The $60,000 is going to go towards the new computers and the software,” she said. “The College of Arts and Sciences has provided a space for us. It’s going to be temporary space, and then we’re expecting in two years to be able to move into a final space.”

In the spring, once the preliminary equipment and space for the lab on campus have been acquired, four internships will be available for both graduate and undergraduate students and open to students of all majors.

“The idea is that they’re going to be paired with a law enforcement officer. Now, they won’t be able to work the case as far as actually, hands-on touching it, but they’re going to be able to observe,” Seigfried-Spellar said. “So job shadow, learn the type of software that’s used, learn about evidence intake and process, chain of custody issues.”

Accepted students will receive course credit for the semester and learn the basics of cybercrime, such as how they should approach a crime scene where electronics are present and how they should garner evidence. For example, Seigfried-Spellar said, they could bring in a dummy iPhone, load data onto it and the students would use what they have learned from the internship to retrieve it.

“We could put cat pictures on it and tell them, ‘Your job is to extract the data and see if you can find cat pictures. And if you can do that, then you would’ve solved the case,’” she said. “It’s showing them how the evidence helps them with these kinds of questions.”

Having experience in cybercrime forensics early on can help students decide whether or not it’s a career path they want to pursue. Before she began researching cybercriminal behavior and teaching at the University, Seigfried-Spellar participated in internships and programs similar to what the University will offer. She said they only furthered her interests in criminal justice. Hopper said she looks forward to such an opportunity herself and believes it will give UA graduates a step up after college.

“Personally, the lab will give me an opportunity to gain some experience in the area of cybercrime, even if that’s not my intended, specific area of interest for my career,” she said. “For the department as a whole, it will give the University’s CJ department graduates a better chance at more competitive positions as more large police departments and federal agencies look for ?experience in cybercrime.”

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Cybercrime lab coming to UA