The newest addition to the state law enforcement agency is housed in the Georgia Cyber Center's Hull-McKnight Building and grew out of an increasing need to hunt down child exploitation and cybercriminals in the state.
(TNS) — Nearly two dozen cell phones, each one evidence in some sort of crime, rest inside clear plastic sleeves on a wall in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's forensic lab at the Georgia Cyber Center.
Each phone is destined for the same place: the workstation of GBI Special Agent Wendell Goodman, who will use every tool at his disposal to break into the phone and reveal its contents.
The phones can contain everything from an incriminating text message about a narcotics deal to geo-location data that places the phone's owner at the time and location of a homicide.
Each phone is as different as the data it stores, and it's Goodman's job to identify each make, model and operating system before running programs to unlock – or at least get around – the device's passcode-protection features.
"For most of them, there is some way to bypass it," Goodman said as he scrolled through the Israeli-made Cellebrite analysis tool he hopes will unlock the Motorola phone in front of him.
Goodman is among the two dozen employees working in the GBI Cyber Crime Center, which serves as the primary post for investigating computer-related crime in Georgia.
The office, in the Georgia Cyber Center's Hull-McKnight Building, grew out of the GBI's Child Exploitation And Computer Crimes Unit in Atlanta, which primarily focuses on child pornography cases.
Leaders of the unit recognized the need to expand the state's digital investigation capabilities around the same time former Gov. Nathan Deal authorized construction of the Georgia Cyber Center in Augusta.
The head of the local office, GBI Special Agent Steven Foster, said locating the state's next-generation computer crime office in the center of a cyber-dedicated innovation campus was a no-brainer.
"The thought process was we're doing a cybercenter that involves the cyberrange concept, the university system, the technical college system and private and public entities – so what's more natural than to put cyberlaw enforcement into that mix?" he said.
The multi-disciplinary convergence has made the 19,000-square-foot Cyber Crime Center the GBI's most unique outpost. The two-year-old office's 60-seat classroom and 28-seat conference rooms are larger than the one at GBI headquarters in Atlanta.
And as far as Foster knows, his is the only GBI office with beanbag chairs.
It's all part and parcel of creating the future cybercop, which relies more on bringing tech-savvy young people into law enforcement, rather than converting street cops into computer experts.
"Someone who can actually go into the dark web and troll for criminal activity might not be worth a darn working a homicide or a drug investigation on the street, but that's exactly the kind of person we want working in cybercrime," Foster said. "That's the next generation of investigators. That's the direction we're headed in."
Foster's own background is more typical of the current generation. He got his start in law enforcement as a deputy in Clayton County in 1989 before joining the GBI in 1995. Twenty-one years of his time at the agency was spent in its Thomson office, where he handled general investigations and crime-scene forensics.
The bulk of the Cyber Crime Center's cases involve financially motivated crimes, such as ransomware attacks on public and private entities, where hackers disable or disrupt the organization's network operations until a ransom is paid.
"Georgia alone last year lost $500 million to cybercrime," Foster said. "And, you know, only one-seventh of cybercrime is reported."
It often is difficult to bring cybercriminals to justice because many operate outside of the United States from uncooperative nations. The 2018 ransomware attack on the city of Atlanta, for example, originated from Iran.
The vast majority of cybercrimes occur through phishing, which occurs when a network user opens a malicious email. Roughly 92% of all GBI cases start with an email, Foster said.
While high-profile data breaches and ransomware attacks grab most of the headlines, virtually any crime can have a digital element because of the prevalence of smartphones and wireless-enabled devices, such as tablets and even household appliances.
"If you carry a cell phone into a homicide, you've left a digital footprint," Foster said. "Whether it is trying to connect with Bluetooth devices, wi-fi or just your mere presence inside the crime scene, that data on your phone becomes really, really important."
The same holds true for modern automobiles, which have computerized navigation and entertainment systems that are constantly generating and storing data.
"It gives us something that we normally wouldn't have, absent a tire print, shoe print or fingerprints," Foster said, noting that his office has assisted in the investigation of the Ahmaud Arbery shooting in South Georgia.
Foster declined to elaborate on the specifics of that case or the nature of its investigation into the incident, which was partly captured on cell phone footage and home security cameras.
His office also assisted in the case against Gwinnett County Judge Kathryn Schrader, who was accused of facilitating illegal access to the county's computer network. Jurors deadlocked on the case earlier this year.
Crimes involving computer fraud against individuals, as well as cyberbullying or cyberstalking, generally trickle up to the GBI through local law enforcement agencies. But Foster said the GBI is lobbying for the ability to have "original jurisdiction" in such cases that would enable the bureau to take a lead role.
The GBI works hand-in-hand with the FBI and other federal agencies. In fact, two U.S. Secret Service agents are based out of the GBI Cyber Crime Center.
Both federal and state agencies are attempting to stay one step ahead of cybercriminals, Foster said.
"It's a cat-and-mouse game," he said. "Everything that we do to increase security on the good guy's side of the house, the bad guys can use that same technology to hide themselves. And then they're using that technology against us. So we're always leapfrogging what the other guy's doing."
©2020 The Augusta Chronicle, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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