By Serena Zacharias South Bend Tribune
Notre Dame senior Lexie Van den Heuvel works on a case on a recent day using a digital forensics tool to sort and organize her data.
SOUTH BEND — On the third floor of Hammes Mowbry Hall on Notre Dame’s campus, student interns don official police badges and spend hours each week sifting through device data, writing search warrants, affidavits and case reports, and researching new strategies to pull information off technology.
Though they’re still undergrads, they’re official investigators with the St. Joseph County Cyber Crimes Unit, working cases from start to finish, said Mitch Kajzer, the director of the Cyber Crimes Unit.
“The students in the program are fantastic here,” said Kajzer, who oversees the interns. “They really do operate at the level of independent investigators. I had three students that worked essentially full time over the summer.”
The Cyber Crimes Unit moved to Notre Dame’s campus from the St. Joseph County Jail in 2015 because it had more space to expand. This past spring eight interns were sworn in with full police powers and after 200 hours of training and mentoring, they are ready to take on their own cases.
“They get the police powers to remove any investigative hurdles in the unit,” Kajzer said. “It allows them to be involved in every single police investigation, and it allows them to write their own search warrant affidavits and appear in front of a judge to obtain search warrants.”
Senior Lexie Van den Heuvel, who started in the unit the fall of her junior year, said she applied for the position because she was interested in getting real-world experience while helping the local community.
“I really wanted to be able to see the impact of my work,” said Van den Heuvel, an information technology major in the Mendoza College of Business. “I’m the lead senior investigator for a lot of these cases, and I see real crimes. I’m starting a case on child molesting, I just did a weapons trafficking and drug-related case.”
After officers submit a basic overview of the case to an intern, Van den Heuvel said they work to extract, process and analyze data — including texts, emails and voicemails — pulled from a device, most often a cellular phone. The data is transferred to Magnet AXIOM, a forensics program the students use for processing.
Van den Heuvel can then sort through the data to find information related to the case.
In addition to mining the data on devices, Van den Heuvel said the interns also look at phone location data by seeing which Wi-Fi towers people connect to in order to research suspicious online activity for a suspect.
She said she’s also been researching how to pull information off of what is referred to as the “Internet of Things,” which include Alexa devices, Fit-Bits, Apple-Watches and more.
Dealing with tragedy
Junior Julia Gately, an economics major from Lake Forest, Ill., has been working in the unit for more than a year and said the cases that have had the most impact on her involve looking through data on phones of people who have died.
One of the first “dead guy phones” Gately saw was for an overdose case. As she was looking for photos and messages that could establish a timeline of events to identify the victim’s drug dealer, she saw a number of messages from parents and friends who had texted out of concern.
“Seeing all the communication from people who didn’t understand what had happened, or seeing the way that they communicate with people, even when they were alive, made me realize that these are real people,” Gately said. “It’s kind of jarring to go through someone’s phone and see them interacted with that way.”
In order to deal with the heaviness of sensitive cases, Gately said she tries her best to filter out the graphic details.
“I kind of like have these blinders I put on or I’ll even cover the screen if I know the image is going to be graphic,” Gately said. “But I genuinely don’t recall any specifics of the kind of graphic things that I see… I just tag it as evidence and then move on as quickly as I can while still doing my job correctly.”
Throughout the data gathering process, Gately said the interns are trained to remain objective no matter what they discover.
“We are neutral finders of fact,” Gately said. “We don’t take sides on investigations. Our only job is to create a timeline for what happened.”