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Ohio Narcotics Intelligence Center Expands Tech Operations

This month, the Ohio Narcotics Intelligence Center launched operations at two new offices to better serve local law enforcement agencies, leveraging technology in their criminal investigations.

hands wearing gloves holding computer hard drive making notes
The Ohio Narcotics Intelligence Center (ONIC) recently opened two new offices in the state — one outside of Cincinnati and one in Toledo — to build on its work assisting local law enforcement agencies throughout the state.

The main focus of ONIC is to offer digital forensic and intelligence services to local agencies — including task forces, police departments and sheriff’s offices — to support investigations, as explained by Ben Suver, director of law enforcement initiatives at the Ohio Department of Public Safety. Suver oversees ONIC’s operations.

Law enforcement is increasingly turning to digital resources like text messages and social media to aid in criminal investigations, and that requires increased sophistication. ONIC, first announced in Gov. Mike DeWine’s 2019 State of the State address and created through an executive order that same year, has been a valuable resource in this effort.

After the first two offices in Cleveland and Columbus proved impactful, another budget cycle allowed for even more expansion to areas that were farther away, Suver said. The announcements about the two new offices came this month, with one division in Toledo and another in Westchester to serve the Cincinnati region.

Suver said after opening the new offices, there was region-specific work to do almost immediately, as regional needs vary. For example, there may be more gang-related crimes in one region than another.

With the authority of a court order, law enforcement officials are legally allowed to go through a phone or device to extract and analyze data — a task that becomes increasingly complex with evolving technology.

Evidence is gathered through two stages: forensic and intelligence analysis, Suver explained.

On the forensic side of the process, the work typically involves extracting data from a device and beating the encryption if the suspect is not willing to provide a password. Meanwhile, on the intelligence side, analysts dissect that data, make time lines and provide a summary of evidence they find — from text conversations to images.

This can be a difficult undertaking, he explained, as cellphones today have thousands of images and text messages on them.

After the ONIC team has deployed technology on the forensic side to gain access to a device’s data, the objective is to turn that raw data into a collection of information that is relevant to an investigation, which must be presented in a way that is digestible to investigators and potentially a jury.

Using artificial intelligence and other tools, the team at ONIC filters through the raw data, looking for things like a firearm, drugs or associates. This process could also involve using location information to map activity related to a crime.

Part of the analysts’ job is to dissect slang, Suver explained. The example he gave was “ice cream,” saying that analysts must use context to determine when a term like this is referencing its literal meaning versus when it is being used as code to discuss drug trafficking.

“It’s where the human mind is intersecting with technology,” he explained. “They use that technology to extract the data, and they use that technology to further filter it, but it ultimately is still the person that has to digest that data in mass quantities and be able to make something that makes sense and is usable to those investigators.”

Technology and human intelligence are two necessary parts of the equation, he said. Where technology provides efficiency, the human intelligence enables contextual understanding.

ONIC will also continue to work to provide this support in emerging technologies like cryptocurrency and understanding how illegal transactions are occurring on the dark web.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.