Problems at the FBI Cellular Forensics Crime Lab in New Jersey

Problems at the FBI Cellular Forensics Crime Lab in New Jersey

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WASHINGTON — An audit of the Federal Bureau of Investigations Regional Computer Forensics Laboratory in New Jersey (NJRCFL) found potential for abuse in the agency’s cellular forensic kiosks used by law enforcement in the area.

Regional Computer Forensics Laboratories run by the FBI were started in 1999 as a way for the FBI to assist local law enforcement agencies in processing electronic evidence from seized computers. In 2001, under the PATRIOT Act, the scope of the program was extended and now there are 16 RCFLs across the nation with an annual budget of $50 million.

The NJRCFL located in Hamilton, New Jersey, was established in 2004 and works with a budget of $452,470, according to the report.

The audit examined how the NJRCFL handled digital forensics, participated with local and state agencies and examined the backlog.

The NJRCFL is the third largest RCFL in the nation. They processed on average 333 terabytes of information from 2011 to 2014, according to the report.

One of the main components of the NJRCFL is the Cell Phone Investigative Kiosk which “allows users to quickly and easily view data stored on a cell phone, extract the data to use as evidence, put the data in a report” and store the data on a CD or similar storage system.

A report by the North Star Post detailed how cellular forensics works and can be read here.

Law enforcement personnel intending to use the kiosk are asked to schedule an appointment with an “examiner” on duty. However, the director of the NJRCFL told the Office of the Inspector General they do “not verify that everyone arriving for a scheduled appointment are working on the same investigative matter.”

This led the OIG to find there was not proper oversight on the use of the kiosk. The FBI did not provide the OIG with any information about safeguards meant to make sure the kiosk was not used for “non-law enforcement matters.”

Additionally, the OIG found the NJRCFL did not have adequate paperwork, which would help ensure the person or persons using the kiosk were qualified law enforcement personnel.

Twenty six percent of the time the kiosk was used it was missing kiosk-training signatures, meaning the person using it did not have proper training or failed to sign the form. The OIG found 2 percent of the time there were no signatures at all.

However, at the end of the audit the NJRCFL instituted new policies making signatures mandatory and required law enforcement officers to cite legal authority to be using the kiosk.

The report did not detail what the Cell Phone Investigative Kiosks do but did state that if the kiosk could not get the information needed, the phone would be passed on to an FBI cellular forensic specialist.

The FBI responded to the requests and recommendations of the OIG.

“We agree that it is important to minimize potential abuse of the Kiosk program,” said Acting Section Chief Cindy L. Hall in a response letter to the OIG.

Read more by the North Star Post about how cellular forensics work.