Central Coast Cyber Forensic Lab offers a new crime-fighting tool in a digital world
When DNA evidence was first used in the late 1980s, it revolutionized the criminal justice system, in part by giving prosecutors more tools to go after criminals.
The next revolution is digital, San Luis Obispo County District Attorney Dan Dow says — and the newly opened Central Coast Cyber Forensic Lab will further expand his prosecuting repertoire.
Dow was one of dozens of officials who gathered at Camp San Luis Obispo on a windy Wednesday morning to commemorate the lab’s grand opening. It was the culmination of a collaborative effort by Dow’s office, county law enforcement agencies, Cal Poly and the California Military Department.
The opening ceremony was followed by a tour of the lab and the greater California Cyber Training Complex — which includes centers for both academic and field training as well as a test range and experimental laboratory — which is expected to be fully operational by 2018.
The facility will be run through Dow’s office, but it will also provide educational opportunities for Cal Poly students.
From the outside, the building that houses the new forensics lab doesn’t look like much.
Bill Britton, interim chief information officer for Cal Poly and director of its cybersecurity center, said that when the project began, locals referred to it as “Pizza Hut,” owing to an exterior design that shares many similarities with the pizza restaurant chain.
But inside, Britton said, the forensic lab houses everything law enforcement agencies need to produce critical digital evidence.
Digital forensics is such a new discipline that in many cases analysts are relegated to metaphorical — and, at least in one case, literal — broom closets, Britton said. The new lab will allow those analysts to move out of the broom closet and into a state-of-the-art facility where they can go “from 25 mph to 110 mph.”
Digital evidence isn’t limited to digital crimes, Dow said.
Rare is the case that does not involve digital evidence.
SLO County District Attorney Dan Dow
Everything from human trafficking to driving under the influence can yield digital evidence, he said, from cellphone call records to internet search histories to saved financial transactions.
“Rare is the case that does not involve digital evidence,” Dow said.
The forensic lab, which will house six or seven technicians, provides a place where San Luis Obispo County law enforcement can collaborate to solve difficult — perhaps even previously unsolvable — cases, he said.
“Really, it’s a matter of expanding our capability,” he said.
In addition, the facility will provide the tools to collect evidence in a way that is compliant with the California Electronic Communications Privacy Act, allowing it to be admitted into court by prosecutors.
Maj. Gen. David Baldwin of the California National Guard, which is hosting the new complex, said the facility’s use isn’t limited to students and law enforcement. The intelligence community, private businesses such as Amazon or PG&E — both of which had representatives on hand Wednesday — and his own organization will also make use of the complex.
Baldwin said the California National Guard is in the process of forming a unit that will spend a year training at Fort George G. Meade in Maryland before returning to Camp San Luis Obispo, as part of an effort to transition from “boots on the ground” to “fingers on the keyboard.”