By Heather Mahalik Barnhart, Senior Director of Community Engagement at Cellebrite
Who among us cannot recall exactly where we were when the dreadful news broke of the Columbine High School shooting? I distinctly remember feeling the shock of it all while watching the heart-wrenching news coverage, and thinking, ‘This could never happen again.’ It was sadly just the beginning. It was 1999 and I had just been accepted into the digital forensics program (I wouldn’t get my first personal cell phone until more than a year later). I had no idea the skills I would learn would one day be used to help get to the bottom of the countless mass shootings we have had since Columbine.
Back then, technology was in its nascent stages, and the idea of using digital footprints, especially from smartphones, to understand and combat such atrocities would have seemed futuristic. Yet as the frequency of these horrific incidents increased, law enforcement recognized the pivotal role digital evidence plays in piecing together each case.
When unthinkable violence happens in communities across America, law enforcement is inundated. From responding to the scene, or scenes, and helping the victims to tracking down and locating the shooter – if they are still on the move. One of the key pieces of evidence law enforcement is eager to get their hands on is any sort of digital footprint. A person’s devices – particularly their smartphone – paint a picture of who this person is and how they interact with the outside world.
When these horrific scenes unfold, Cellebrite has experts who drop everything and partner with law enforcement to speed up the process of accessing and analyzing any data that is part of an investigation. Our team’s mastery of digital forensics often aids law enforcement in finding key pieces of information needed to track down who is involved; and/or it helps inform many aspects of an investigation. The answers are needed quickly, and our team can help take some of the burden off an agency in the middle of an active investigation.
Digital evidence has been a powerful component in cases predating modern smartphones. Prior to Cellebrite, during my time assisting the federal government in high-profile cases and investigations, I worked on many involving mass violence. The digital evidence component is one of the most powerful pieces of the investigation. All forms of mass terrorism have been using digital means long before the advent of the iPhone and Android. If you think about Osama bin Laden’s devices, he and fellow terrorists communicated on old Nokia handset phones. Even all those years ago, we could extract the data that eventually helped track down his network.
The evolution of technology, coupled with the ubiquity of devices, has transformed the investigative landscape. Our reliance on smartphones has inadvertently made it easier for law enforcement to respond swiftly, gather evidence efficiently, and, ideally, prevent mass violence plans from materializing.
The Boston Marathon bombing in April 2013 is a prime example of digital evidence’s prowess. Analysis of surveillance camera footage throughout the area helped police quickly identify the two brothers suspected in the bombing. And when police tracked down and arrested the surviving brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, he had a backpack full of devices. The jihadist material found in the digital evidence, including bomb-making techniques, played a huge part in establishing motive and ultimately led to his conviction.
When the Michigan Oxford High School shooting happened in November 2021, the digital evidence gathered during the course of the investigation helped map out the timeline of the crime and allowed prosecutors to quickly learn this was a deliberate, planned attack with extensive forethought. In December 2023, the shooter was convicted of life in prison without the possibility of parole after he took four lives and injured seven others. His parents have also been charged in connection with the violence. In public statements, prosecutors have made it clear the plethora of evidence extracted from his parents’ phones will play a key role in their January 2024 trial. They are charged with involuntary manslaughter, accused of purchasing and giving him access to the gun used in the massacre.
Digital evidence is present in more than two-thirds of crimes that happen today. That’s officially the statistic, yet I and many others in the field would argue that you are hard-pressed to find a crime that does not have a digital component. In our incredibly connected world – from smartphones to surveillance cameras to the Bluetooth technology in our vehicles – leaving a digital footprint is unavoidable. And even when people try and prevent creating a digital footprint and/or try and erase it, the data always reveals the truth, helping investigators accurately understand a person’s actions. Often, digital evidence is a key piece of the puzzle. At a minimum, it provides a full account of who people are, where they go, who they interact with, what they search and, in some cases, it can eventually shed light on the motive behind the violence. Often, devices can provide answers that people cannot and often will not.
Much like Columbine, communities reeling from mass violence yearn for answers quickly. The search for the "why" behind these incomprehensible tragedies can be prolonged and, in some cases, elusive. The intricate nature of these events means that closure is not always possible. Sometimes, the “why” question is never answered. Yet, digital evidence often offers the closest version we can get, helping to shed some light on the motives behind such acts and provide a semblance of understanding – no matter how hard it is to learn. It is a humbling privilege to help serve law enforcement in their time of need, offering the digital investigative solutions and expertise that allow agencies to find answers quickly, protect their communities and accelerate justice for all involved.
About the Author
Heather Mahalik Barnhart is the Senior Director of Community Engagement at Cellebrite, a global leader in premier Digital Investigative solutions for the public and private sectors. She educates digital forensic professionals and advises on strategic digital investigative operations. For more than 20 years, Heather worked on high-stress and high-profile cases, investigating everything from child exploitation to Osama Bin Laden's digital media. She’s helped law enforcement, eDiscovery firms and the U.S. federal government extract and manually decode artifacts used in solving investigations around the world.