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Wednesday, April 24, 2024
The Observer

University students intern with St. Joseph County Cyber Crimes Unit

Eight Notre Dame students are working as Digital Forensic Analysts at the St. Joseph County Cyber Crimes Unit in an ongoing internship. They work side by side with the Notre Dame Police Department to solve criminal cases in St. Joseph County and conduct independent forensic research.

Photo courtesy of Alexandra Van Den Heuvel
Junior Julia Gately signs her oath to become an officer in the St. Joseph County Cyber Crimes Unit.

Although a few other universities have programs of a similar nature, Notre Dame has the only program that swears in these students as officers for the Cyber Crimes Unit with full investigative privileges. They investigate a variety of cases including school threats, rape, theft, child pornography and murder using digital footprints to gather evidence.

“Anytime someone’s been accused of a crime committed over the internet or using a digital device, we will get a search warrant, and then seize the item and download it using software digital forensics,” said Carolyn Kammeyer, a senior computing and digital technologies (CDT) minor. “We’re able to download all the data off that device and go looking for, based on the warrant and the scope of search, what he or she’s been accused of.”

Mitch Kajzer, director of the Cyber Crimes Unit, oversees these students in their investigations but said the students handle most of the work on their own.

“They are the primary investigator on that case, which means they handle the entire case and are trained to function alone as an investigator into any digital aspect of crimes that happen in St. Joseph County, mainly doing forensic analysis of electronic items — cell phones, computers, thumb drives and SD cards,” he said.

Alexandra Van Den Heuvel, a senior information technology management major, said she particularly enjoys using real-life technical applications in her job as well as taking on the psychological role.

“I’ve done two school threats, and I’ve really enjoyed trying to figure out what people’s resources are and if they’re willing and able to carry out the attack,” she said.

When not working on current cases, the interns conduct their own independent research.

“Last year, we were doing some drone research, and that’s definitely going to come up in law soon,” Kammeyer said.

She said she also has to consider tough questions regarding where drones can fly and whether information obtained this way can be used to prosecute.

Van Den Heuvel and other interns are also doing independent research into using the vital readings on heart rate monitors such as Fitbits and Apple Watches as evidence for whether an individual was raped. She said she believes college students can be an incredible asset to the unit.

“One of the major benefits is that, as students, we understand the technologies that our generation is using to solve crimes, and I think that’s a very key part of it,” she said. “We understand Snapchat and Instagram better than our parents do, and those are the platforms where a lot of crimes are being carried out.”

Kajzer also said the students’ ages allows them to be particularly helpful when working with technology.

“They have been working with technology and digital items their entire lives, so they have that innate understanding of how various apps work,” he said.

In addition to the new perspective and knowledge they bring, Kajzer said these interns also add the manpower needed to solve cases more effectively.

“We’re able to take on more and more cases because we have the students. Without them here, digital forensics typically has a six-to-nine-month backlog to get results back for forensics,” Kajzer said. “But because of the students, our turnaround time is usually one day, so we get evidence to the investigators and to the prosecutors right away so they can make good, informed decisions.”

Brooke Sabey, a junior CDT minor and internship participant, said she appreciates how unique the program is.

“I think it’s really cool Notre Dame has this program,” she said. “We are the only school that has college students being actually sworn in as law enforcement.”

In the future, the program leadership would like to expand and have more students as interns. Kammeyer said he hopes more students join the unit because the work they are doing is so important.

“Knowing that you’re catching these people, and at the end of the day, you’re making the world a better place, even if it is just one case at a time,” he said.