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How 1 St. Louis group uses digital forensics to solve crimes

Ken Nix is the founder and operational director of the St. Louis Regional Computer Crimes Education and Enforcement Group.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio
Ken Nix is the founder and operational director of the St. Louis Regional Computer Crimes Education and Enforcement Group.

Since 2002, the St. Louis Regional Computer Crimes Education and Enforcement Group has cracked down on digital crimes including those of child exploitation and cyberbullying.

“We needed something to help law enforcement address any type of digital forensics immediately instead of having to wait six, seven, eight months,” Ken Nix said on Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air.

Detective Cpl. Nix, founder and operational director of the nonprofit, is also a 40-year veteran of the Clayton Police Department. He joined host Don Marsh for a discussion about the changing nature of digital crimes and how a local law enforcement group investigates and conducts digital forensics.

Nix went on to explain what digital forensics is:

“[It is] taking an item someone utilizes and has the capability of storing information … and we will take those items such as a computer, cellphone and media and pull the information off using forensic sound tools to create an exact duplicate and work off of that to identify the contents of it.”

Nix said the goal of the group is to “help law enforcement either identify where they want to go with the case, to prove the case happened, or prove it didn’t happen, and that helps them in the prosecution of the incident.”

In the group’s early years, the majority of the cases related to child exploitation. Now, those cases represent about 50 percent of the workload, and the rest deal with homicides, fraud, hacking, intrusions, theft and more.

“These agencies are understanding that digital forensics can help them more in the field with all of their investigations, not just child crimes,” Nix said.

While some people may be under the impression that data is removed from a device after it is deleted, Nix explained that is not always the case. It depends on if the data was overwritten.

“Depending on how the forensics is done we may be able to recover deleted items to help [law enforcement] in their investigations,” Nix said. “We’ve recovered partial stuff before … because part of it was overwritten by the needing of the item to utilize the space.”

When it comes to seizing of tangible property such as computers or phones, Nix said they follow regular protocol of filing a warrant. However, when the media is protected by passcode or encryption, “That’s where some of the difficulties we encounter is,” he said.

“There’s certain tools that we have where we can use a brute force to try and crack an encrypted item, or we may have some other tools that can bypass passcodes and pull that off,” Nix said.

On that note, Marsh asked about privacy issues.

“We work very close with the prosecutors, and we work very close with law enforcement in trying to detail what we can and cannot do,” Nix explained.

He also brought up laws currently under review in various states that involve an individual being forced to give their fingerprint or passcode to open a device.

“We have to keep up with that on where we’re getting our cases from, [how] does the law in that region apply, and how can we utilize it,” Nix added.

As the group does its part to maintain justice, Nix said it has come across issues of funding in recent years.

“What we’re looking for is trying to figure a means to bring in funds to keep our entity operating. We’re not the only forensics unit in town … but we’re looking [for more funding] as a separate entity that provides services to the region, to all the municipalities that don’t have the funds or personnel available to provide forensics.”

For more information about the St. Louis RCCEEG, visit www.rcceeg.org.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex HeuerEvie HemphillLara HamdanCaitlin Lally and Xandra Ellin give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Caitlin Lally is thrilled to join St. Louis Public Radio as the summer production intern for "St. Louis on the Air." With a bachelor's degree in journalism from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Caitlin also freelances for area publications like Sauce Magazine and the Belleville News-Democrat. In her career, she's covered topics such as Trump's travel ban, political protests and community activism. When she's not producing audio segments or transcribing interviews, Caitlin enjoys practicing yoga, seeing live music, and cooking plant-based meals.