Computer Crime Research Center

FBI planning Bay Area computer forensics lab
(By Sean Webby)

The FBI is creating a $3 million computer forensics lab in Silicon Valley, using the latest imaging software and high-end computers to sleuth for cyber-clues of child pornography, corruption, murder and more.

The 12,000-square-foot Regional Computer Forensics Laboratory, at the foot of the Dumbarton Bridge in Menlo Park, will be available to help detectives from San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara and Alameda counties hunt for digital clues. Investigators can bring seized computers and disks to be searched for incriminating e-mails, encrypted documents and other evidence within hardware or software.

Labs like these are popping up around the country in response to what investigators are saying is an exponentially growing mass of new case evidence to be analyzed.

``Where we used to look at a homicide suspect's letters, now it's evolved into an electronic format,'' said Mark Mershon, the special agent in charge of the FBI command in San Francisco. ``This is a quickly growing need, and law enforcement needs to pool its resources to face it.''

The lab is expected to be operating by next year. It will be staffed by about 15 highly trained investigators culled from the FBI and local agencies, including the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office and San Jose and Palo Alto police departments.

Meanwhile, Santa Clara County is using a $250,000 state grant to start its own six-investigator computer crime lab within a month, according to lab director Kenneth Rosenblatt. Many of the functions of that lab, based in the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office, are set to be folded into the FBI lab when it opens.

There are two regional computer labs in operation -- in San Diego and Dallas. In the pipeline is this lab as well as centers in Chicago and Kansas City.

``This is where everything in law enforcement is going,'' said Randall Bolelli, director of the FBI's regional forensic lab in San Diego. ``Almost every case these days involves a computer in some way. And as hard drive space and capacity keeps increasing, we have more things to look at.''

For years, police departments and prosecutors have had to rely on computer forensics from overburdened, in-house experts. Investigators are hoping the new Silicon Valley lab will help them keep up with the dramatically growing need for processing criminal computer evidence.

Computer evidence has been at the heart of many of the area's child pornography investigations, but these days, experts say, computer evidence is involved in virtually every type of case, including investment fraud, robbery, sex crimes, murder and terrorism.

For example:
* The FBI used computer forensics in this spring's Operation Candyman. Seven South Bay residents were among 40 child pornography suspects arrested in a nationwide child porn sweep.
* In Palo Alto earlier this year, detectives investigating a child molestation complaint looked in the files of the suspect's computer and found a journal where he expressed his love for the elementary school student. The man was convicted.

Law enforcement interviewed about the regional lab agreed that the increasing workload needed to be attacked in a united way.

Jack Grandsaert, the San Mateo County deputy district attorney in charge of computer forensics, said there are people complicit in crimes going free for lack of trained investigators.

``Before we used to look at the typewriter ribbon. Now, think of e-mail, who the suspects are corresponding with,'' Grandsaert said. ``Well, we often can't find it because it is encoded. And so we miss out on a co-conspirator that might have had a mother lode of evidence.''

The lab is also expected to function as a training center for local law enforcement. As investigators are rotated out of the lab, they will return to their agencies with the latest training. Among the skills being taught at the San Diego lab, for example, is how to remove evidence from a computer without damaging the files, how to find ways around firewalls and secret passwords, and how to remove evidence from a computer without disabling it.

Although Menlo Park's regional lab will be created and funded by the FBI, its control will be transferred to a local police agency after two years. That agency has not been picked yet, Mershon said.

Contact Sean Webby at or (650) 688-7577.


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