Silicon Valley/San Jose Business Journal
Ken Spencer Brown
Marla Carroll, a senior forensics specialist for the Broward County, Fla., Sheriff’s Department, is repeatedly interrupted by co-workers during a telephone call — not surprising, given her office’s role in the largest manhunt in U.S. history.
Fifteen of the 19 people believed responsible for this month’s terrorist attacks on the East Coast have Florida connections, making Ms. Carroll’s department among the busiest of any local agency helping track down those responsible.
But thanks to recent advancements in graphics tools and other technology — much of these created in Silicon Valley — she and fellow investigators have an arsenal of tools that were prohibitively expensive or unavailable just a few years ago.
“When I went to a forensics technology conference in 1994, there was just one exhibitor of video technology,” Ms. Carroll says, recalling her early work with software tools. “This year, there were over a dozen. The increase in this sort of technology has just been huge.”
The particular usefulness of any technique or clue differs from investigation to investigation, and no technology alone will solve a case. But recent innovations can help ferret out important clues — links between people, the locations of suspects at a given time and, most important, a better idea of what else to look for.
Though San Jose’s Adobe Systems Inc. is best known for software used by creative professionals, its programs are among the most widely used in law-enforcement.
The company’s software in some cases makes easy what only a few years ago would have been impossible, says Ms. Carroll, a former FBI agent who’s helping to create a certification program for investigators using Adobe products. Developing photographs and enhancing them in a darkroom, for example, could take hours. Using computer software takes mere minutes.
Adobe’s image-manipulation software Photoshop is being employed in police investigations to enhance surveillance photos, making grainy surveillance photos clear enough to identify suspects.
Adobe’s two video-editing applications, Premiere and After Effects, can improve the quality of security camera video, which is usually of poor quality to conserve costs for tape and equipment. The software also is used in conjunction with new digital camcorders to record crime-scene walk-throughs and perform detailed analyses of clues recorded onto videotape.
Using a laptop equipped with a high-speed FireWire connection — a data transfer technology developed by Apple Computer Inc. that connects video cameras to computers — investigators can use Adobe software to piece together evidence at the scene of a crime, allowing them to review videotaped evidence and determine if there are any gaps in it.
Adobe’s Dave Hemly, who helps train law-enforcement agencies to use the company’s software, says the application wasn’t created with law enforcement in mind. But he says he isn’t surprised it has become popular among such agencies, primarily for the same reasons the software dominates graphic design circles now, namely its range of photo-enhancement features.
Adobe doesn’t sell versions of its tools designed specifically for law enforcement, but several other companies make plug-ins to Photoshop and other applications tailored to the needs of investigators. One of those, PC Pros’ More Hits, removes patterns from photos to bring out obscured fingerprints and other clues.
Investigators have other tools, including those to track messages sent between suspected terrorists.
Visualware Inc. in Turlock is one of several companies that makes applications that can trace the path of data across the Internet and show it visually, on a geographical map of the world. This can help establish the location of suspects who use the Internet to plan terrorism.
Julie Lancaster, the company’s marketing director, says the software originally was designed to help network operators root out technical problems. But the law-enforcement benefits of being able to see the general location of a suspect quickly became obvious.
Visualware’s products won’t provide a street address of an e-mail sender, but can show which local Internet servers are being used. That, says Ms. Lancaster, provides a valuable “first clue.”
Susan Corrado, a former FBI agent who specialized in computer crime and has many friends still in the agency, says law enforcement is using a variety of high-tech tools for investigations, especially those that can analyze minuscule pieces of evidence. In the investigation of the Pan Am Flight 103 explosion over Lockerbie, Scotland, for instance, a bomb fragment the size of a fingernail became the case’s big break.
Ms. Corrado now works for The Intelligence Group, a corporate crime firm that uses high-tech methods to recover deleted data from hard drives, for example, and track data sent over a corporate network.
In addition to scouring the attack scenes, she says, investigators are inspecting suspects’ apartments, taking photographs of fingerprints and using chemical analyzing equipment on pieces of fabric and hair.
In an investigative effort, this helps establish that a suspect was in a certain place at a certain time, clues that may not seem useful at first but may prove crucial later. Smoking guns are rare, but computers can help establish connections between suspects and reveal clues not visible to the naked eye.
“For crime-scene investigations, technology has made a huge difference,” Ms. Corrado says.
Patrick McCann, a professor at the University of Oklahoma and founder of Ekips Technologies, makes semiconductors used in ultraviolet laser devices that can detect even a few molecules of certain chemicals in the air. The device is used to “sniff out” crime scenes, determining whether, say, a suspect handled chemicals used to make a bomb or had contact with someone wearing a particular brand of perfume.
The equipment also could become standard in airports alongside X-ray machines and metal detectors.
Though the concept has been around for years, the cost has dropped enough in recent years to make the devices affordable to airports and other users. The machines cost around $250,000 now, but prices are falling.
Bob Brammer, chief technology officer of Northrop Grumman Information Technologies subsidiary TASC Inc., works with national defense agencies and corporations to track, analyze and intercept telephone calls.
Much of the investigative work in the East Coast attacks likely will center on mundane techniques such as analyzing credit card records and scanning e-mail.
He warns that despite investigators’ high-tech tools, terrorists are probably more clever than most criminals.
“I think they’re very sophisticated, very intelligent people,” he says. “They’re smart enough not to be stupid about their activities. In terms of tracking down criminals in remote areas like Afghanistan, it’s hard to picture a technological solution.”
KEN SPENCER BROWN is a member of the Business Journal’s technology team