The FBI’s Regional Computer Forensics Laboratories Are Vital in the Digital Age

Technology and connected devices touch nearly every facet of modern life, and they often hold key evidence in criminal investigations. “Every single case now involves some sort of digital evidence,” said FBI Supervisory Special Agent Steven Newman, director of the New Jersey Regional Computer Forensics Laboratory (NJRCFL).

Digital evidence can be on any device and can follow subjects almost anywhere they traverse in the cyber world. As such, digital evidence is key in Internet-enabled crimes, but it is also critical in cases that range from terrorism to fraud.

In May 2018, three New Jersey men were sentenced to prison for conspiring to provide material support to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which is designated by the United States as a foreign terrorist organization. The FBI became aware of the men’s activities through a tip from an informant, according to Special Agent Suzanne Walsh with the FBI’s Newark Field Office.

Once that tip was deemed credible, digital evidence became key to investigating the men’s motives. The digital evidence left on the suspects’ computers and phones was crucial to showing criminal intent in the actions the men took—from planning to travel overseas to viewing ISIS propaganda online.

Alaa Saadeh, who was 24 at the time of sentencing, was given 15 years for his crimes. The evidence investigators uncovered showed he was actively planning to join ISIS and had supported his brother’s travel, both financially and logistically, to pursue that same goal.

Alaa’s brother, Nader Saadeh, 23 at sentencing, was given 10 years; and a third man, Samuel Rahamin Topaz, 24 at sentencing, was given eight years. The evidence showed all three had viewed ISIS materials, maps, and videos, including videos that depicted executions. Their communications also contained evidence that showed their desire to join ISIS and revealed some of the efforts they took to conceal their activities.

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Case Study: 30-Year-Old Cold Case Fingerprints Come to Light

Latent fingerprints are left with trace sweats and oils from unique patterns, providing the first great forensic human identifier about a century ago.

One of the few problems, however: the fingermarks can dehydrate over long periods of time. Cold cases may thus be a challenge.

But a team at the Sûreté du Québec police force in Canada has put together a methodology involving fuming, dyes and lasers which produced a clear fingerprint on a challenging plastic bag surface from a double-homicide scene from the 1980s, as they report in the journal Forensic Science International.

“The current case presents a uniqueness due to the age of the revealed fingermark, and the paired success of cyanoacrylate fuming,” writes the Canadian team. “It would thus be of great interest of future cold case analysis using this technique to identify the factors having made this revelation possible.”

The plastic bag was found at the crime scene, and had been preserved in a paper evidence bag for decades.

Since the plastic bag is non-porous, it also further fostered the dehydration process in the roughly 30 years it was left untreated in storage. Its lack of texture also “eased the deposition process.”

The Sûreté forensic experts decided to try fuming with superglue: namely E-Z Bond Instant Glue (Thin), with cyanoacrylate.

Hanging the bag in a sealed cabinet, a small amount of the glue was poured into an aluminum cup, which was then placed near a heater set to 80 degrees Celsius. A 1500 mL beaker with near-boiling water was set at the bottom of the cabinet—and a tube emitting air was placed into the water to bubble it.

For 12 minutes, the process continually attached cyanoacrylate vapors to the residues on the bag within the enclosed space.

Then came the staining.

The solution of Rhodamine 6G and methanol was mixed with a magnetic stirrer until completely dissolved, creating a bright orange mix.

Under a fume hood, the solution was sprayed over of the superglue patterns, and the excess was flushed away with pure methanol.

The treatment process thus rehydrated the marks left from the fingerprint decades before, and locked them in permanent patterns, the experts write.

The evidence was then left to dry in the fume hood, according to the paper.

Once dry, an Arrowhead 532 nm laser was used to examine the patterns. Through orange-stained goggles, pictures are taken with a Nikon D7000 camera mounted with an orange-curved barrier filter.

A good fingerprint was thus produced for the first time from the two homicides.

No suspect has yet matched the fingerprint from the double-murder scene, the team reports. However, the cold-case technique could crack open it and other cases in the near future, they report.

“It also reiterates the importance opening cold cases in order to treat and reassess their exhibits,” they write. “Despite the age of a fingermark, cyanoacrylate combined with rhodamine 6G and visualized with a laser can provide new evidence … This opens the possibility of making an identification and ultimately change the course of the investigation.”

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Burglary Microbiome Project Looks for Incriminating Bacteria in Mock Crimes

The human body emits a staggering 36 million microbes into the outside environment—every single hour. Forensic scientists have looked to this signature as a kind of microscopic trail that may track down suspects, or even reconstruct movements in a crime.

The Burglary Microbiome Project, an ongoing study using mock crime scenes and scientific sampling of homes, residents and intruders, is underway to lay the groundwork for implementing the concept in real life, according to a group of scientists from three colleges.

The initial results were presented by the investigators at the American Society of Microbiology’s annual Microbe meeting in Atlanta earlier this month.

“This study is one of the first to use the microbiome as a forensic tool using unique markers rather than variances in microbial community structure,” said Jarrad Hampton-Marcell, a doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who presented at the conference.

The researchers, including those from Nova Southeastern University and the University of Chicago, first established baselines of the microbiome in the “crime scenes.”

They started by taking bacterial samples from the noses and hands of the residents, as well as various surfaces within their homes.

Overall, a total of 9,965 unique operational taxonomic units, or OTUs, were identified among 30 people who participated in the experiment.

The baseline established, they then conducted the mock burglaries, in which a suspect entered into the microbiome, dragging their own signature through the domestic environment, according to the researchers.

The invaders’ microbial signature was detected and mapped to the homes at greater than 60 percent accuracy, according to the scientists.

“When observing the change in OTUs over time, appearance/disappearance rates showed no significant difference in the absence or presence of other individuals,” add the researchers, in an American Society of Microbiology statement on the work.

But more work remains to refine the markers, and distinguish further markers to improve the accuracy, they said.

“With further improvement in detection of stable markers, the human microbiome may serve as an additional tool for human profiling and crime scene investigations,” added Hampton-Marcell.

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