Web exclusive: Former counter-terrorism agent discusses ‘new world of digital forensics’

Web exclusive: Former counter-terrorism agent discusses ‘new world of digital forensics’

By Jessi Savino

Edward Appel Sr. calls himself “a true nerd.” He also happens to be one of the nation’s leading experts on digital forensics, having worked for the FBI for 28 years and for many of the nation’s other intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

Yesterday, Appel shared his knowledge and experience with an audience in the Curry Student Center with a lecture titled “The New World of Digital Forensics.” The lecture was for The College of Criminal Justice and The Barnett Institute’s Eighth Annual Francine and Michael Saferstein Memorial Lecture.

Appel outlined what he called a “strategic view of digital forensics.” He discussed its context, ethics and implications, as well as future trends and issues.

The amount of data available in digital form is huge, Appel said.

“If 20 gigs of information was put onto eight-by-eleven sheets of paper, the stack would reach the top of the Empire State Building,” he said. “And that’s only 20 gigs – we’re talking hundreds of terabytes of information.”

This creates a forensic problem, especially with the invention of pocket-sized file transfer devices. One could literally put billions of dollars worth of a company’s information in their pocket, Appel said. He said law enforcement at all levels is unprepared for this “data glut – information famine.”

Currently, digital forensics is not nearly as efficient as it could be and Appel blames this trend on larger amounts of data, but the same tools as before. Forensics tools need to advance more quickly, not only to process this increased amount of information, but to avoid contamination of the information that is collected, he said.

Because of this need for advancement in technology, and for people who understand how to use it, there is a great amount of career opportunities in the digital forensics field.

To be successful in the field of digital forensics, Appel said, one needs to have knowledge in both the fields of policing and computers.

“We need our police to become nerds, or nerds to become cops,” he said.

Unfortunately, Appel said many of those who do understand both worlds are not going into law enforcement – rather, they’re pursuing careers in the private sector, which offers more money.

Alan Sinnett, a sophomore criminal justice major, said he came to the event to learn more about the criminal justice field.

“I’m not sure exactly what I want to do in the field, so I want to hear about as many different areas as I can,” Sinnett said. He said he was glad Northeastern holds these events because “you can really learn a lot. You get tons of information, and you can choose to use it or not use it, but where else are you going to hear it?”

Appel’s company, iNameCheck, specializes in tracing online activity back to company employees as part of background checks.

“Security requires policy and privacy trade-offs,” he said. “We need better tools to protect the data we have. The question is how to close the gap.”

The most important thing, Appel said, is to have a multidisciplinary approach. He stressed the importance of police, private security and academia working together.

“If you don’t have a multidisciplinary approach, you’re not getting all the brains, and you’ll fail,” Appel said.

Appel said there’s been a recent surge in computer related crimes, which come with a surplus of digital evidence. But even in non-computer crimes, digital evidence has outstripped physical evidence in both quantity and quality.

“The most common devices we rely on day-to-day are digital,” Appel said. “[These devices] can then be used to track our exact location at a particular time.”

For example, Appel recalled an incident where the GPS system in all phones was used to prove a murder suspect had been at the scene of the crime at the time of the murder.

The internet has also been a huge source of both crime and investigation in recent years. Many employers and even law enforcement officials now use Internet searches as simple as Google to find out information about potential employees.

“Almost all we do offline, we can do online,” Appel said. “We can infiltrate and observe; intercept, subpoena and recover data; and find and document ongoing illegal behavior.”

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