Michael Rayball once designed complex, but unexciting, computer-assisted instruction programs. Now he helps law enforcement track down con artists, white-collar thieves, pedophiles and other bad guys.
Rayball, who commands the computer crimes division of the Maricopa County, Ariz., Sheriff's Office, is pleased with his job change and gratified that he can draw on his technical skills, including a master's degree in educational technology, to help rid society of its worst elements. "I feel like I'm doing something really good," he says.
As law enforcement agencies increasingly turn to IT to handle crime scene investigations and to uncover evidence stored on PCs, mobile phones and other gadgets, the demand for tech experts is growing rapidly. That's largely because criminals are becoming increasingly tech savvy as well. "More and more, computers are used to store data that may have relevance to a broader range of criminal activity," says Larry D. Depew, director of the FBI's New Jersey Regional Computer Forensic Laboratory in Hamilton, N.J. "We have experienced a significant increase in stored digital data relevant to terrorism, racketeering, intellectual property theft and counterintelligence."
Only a decade or so ago, few law enforcement agencies had any type of digital technology. "Back when I started working against organized crime, we used to keep all the tips we got on drug dealers on 3x5 cards," recalls Howard Schmidt, chairman of The U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team (CERT) and former cyber-security advisor to President George W. Bush.
Today computers are mandatory in law enforcement, and agencies nationwide are seeking workers with various types of IT skills, particularly digital forensics and systems development, operations and maintenance. Perhaps most importantly, agencies are looking for people who understand the legal implications of the data they're viewing, those who are "able to take data and analyze it creatively," says Rayball.
While most agencies are beefing up their technical staffs, grads can still find it difficult to get a foot in the door at local and state agencies. That's because many departments prefer to train existing officers to handle computer-based analyses and investigations. "We're one of the exceptions to the rule," explains Rayball. "We are looking for engineers or people with computer backgrounds."
While the Maricopa Sheriff's Office is actively seeking outside tech experts, most agencies want people with extensive knowledge of both law enforcement and the local community, as well as IT. In fact, Rayball suggests that grads with an interest in law enforcement may want to consider entering the field as a police officer or deputy. "That actually opens up possibilities, because you're not just applying for a job to be an IT person," he states. "You can then come in and apply your computer knowledge to a wide variety of areas in a law enforcement agency."
Working for the Feds
But one doesn't have to be a current or ex-cop to apply for tech investigation and analysis jobs at federal agencies, adds Depew. The feds, he explains, are most interested in raw brainpower. "The field of digital forensics demands the same level of quality and standardization of processes as we have come to expect in other forensic science disciplines."
To increase the pool of suitable job candidates, the FBI is developing partnerships with colleges and universities to identify students with digital forensics skills. The FBI is looking for the "best and the brightest," Depew says. The agency also offers non-paid internships, allowing qualified students to obtain invaluable real world digital forensics experience. Further details on positions with the FBI are available at www.fbijobs.com.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is another federal agency with a growing need for IT experts. DHS's Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection Directorate (IAIP), for example, is seeking people who can help identify and assess threats to the nation's critical infrastructure. Current DHS job openings are listed at www.usajobs.opm.gov/homeland.asp.
While most people automatically associate law enforcement with the government, it's important to remember that many local, state and federal agencies rely on private companies for investigative and analysis support. Outside contractors offer specialized expertise and technology resources that government agencies need only occasionally.
Jobs are also available at the growing number of hardware and software companies that supply crime-fighting technologies to law enforcement agencies. Google.com searches on terms like "forensics software" and "forensics tools" will return the names of dozens of firms.
In fact, there's a busy crossroads between private and government law enforcement technology organizations, with many police IT professionals eventually migrating to jobs at private businesses. "In a lot of these positions, you start out at almost double the salary you have in a moderate-sized city's law enforcement agencies," says Schmidt. Since law enforcement is now overwhelmed by cyber crimes such as fraud and identity theft, many corporations, particularly banks and credit card companies, now operate their own investigative units to track down bad guys. "These organizations offer many employment opportunities for skilled individuals," Schmidt adds.
Learning the Ropes
Today, acquiring IT law enforcement technology training is easier than ever before. "Many colleges and universities are beginning to develop disciplines or sub-disciplines focusing on digital forensics," asserts Depew. The University of Texas at Dallas and Duquesne University are among the schools that have launched digital forensics institutes, and scores of other schools now offer digital forensics courses, programs and workshops.
Rayball suggests getting expertise in as many technologies and systems as possible. "For law enforcement, you're better off having a broader, more general knowledge rather than being really focused on a particular area," he says. "There really is no one platform or system. Every agency has their own thing and does it their own way."
As crimes become more complex and bad guys refine their technology skills, law enforcement struggles, often against limited budgets, to keep pace. "We actually have to keep a step ahead, and that may be the greatest challenge," states Rayball. "We all have to work hard to make a difference because as a society we can't afford to lose."