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The job of the modern police officer is changing. Nowhere is that more evident than in the technology used by today’s law enforcement agencies.
The Minot Police Department is not immune to those changes.
While changing technology does offer new methods of catching and prosecuting criminals, other improvements in technology can make life more difficult for police officers.
No one knows that better than Det. Matt Hiatt, who specializes in digital forensics for the Minot Police Department.
“It can be hard to keep up with changing technology,” Hiatt said. “Law enforcement can be a step behind sometimes, although other times we can be a step ahead of the criminal element. But the ever-changing technology can often slow down an investigation.”
Hiatt has been with the Minot Police Department for more than eight years, spending the last three years as a detective in the investigations department. He has focused on digital forensics for the past year. As a division commander, Capt. Justin Sundheim supports those who specialize in the digital side of investigations.
As part of his job, Hiatt has attended numerous training sessions, including “between 120 and 150 hours of training for just one program.” He spends a lot of time in the department’s computer lab, a room filled with a variety of computer monitors and other electronic equipment. A locked storage cabinet contains between 30 and 50 hard drives full of archived information, Hiatt said.
In his time as a police officer, Hiatt has noticed the increase in the amount of technology used by the department and by those committing crimes.
On one hand, the improved technology has, in many instances, made his job more difficult.
“Some of the newer apps don’t save any data, so that makes it difficult when people are using those apps to communicate with each other in reference to crimes,” Hiatt said. “Smart phones have become mini computers that people carry with them all the time. Basically, their entire life can be tied to that phone. But there are new security features coming out that make it harder to access information on these devices.”
“We used to communicate through a phone call. Then it was through a text message. Now there are so many apps to communicate with, and it can be very time intensive to backtrack and find the information we need and then gain legal access to it,” Sundheim said.
On the other hand . . .
“It’s nice that most people keep their devices with them at all times,” Hiatt said. “Often we are able to retrieve photos or even videos of crimes or evidence. Plus, the data nowadays really ties that person to that particular device, so that can help in prosecutions.”
The amount of digital information created through the use of electronic devices continues to multiply. But concern over invasions of personal privacy means gaining access to that information can often prove difficult for law enforcement.
“The court system is constantly playing catchup to the changing technology,” Sundheim said. “It’s always been difficult to find the right balance between privacy vs. the needs of law enforcement. What we’re going through now with technology is the same debate, but it’s just in a different format.”
Gaining access to data that law enforcement agencies deem essential to a criminal investigation often requires several steps, including multiple search warrants.
“We often have to get several search warrants for one case, or even for one device,” Hiatt said. “For instance, I can get a search warrant to collect information from someone’s phone, but I might need a separate search warrant to collect data from the Cloud. Then I might need another search warrant for the company behind a certain app on that phone. And then there might be another search warrant necessary if that company is outside the United States. It can be very time-consuming.”
Hiatt and Sundheim said courts and businesses tend to err on the side of caution when it comes to allowing access to private information. Both officers completely understand that approach.
“There are always going to be concerns from the court system about allowing access to private information, and we understand that,” Sundheim said. “It just means we have to do our jobs a little differently, and work a little harder to prove to the courts why we need the information we are requesting.”
Gaining access to digital information can help investigations of crimes in Minot, but also assist with cases in other cities and states, and even other countries.
“We do a lot of work with the International Crimes against Children task force, and we collaborate with many state and federal agencies,” Hiatt said. “Technology allows everyone to share information, and we may be able to help solve a case in another state or even another country. It allows us all to work together like never before.”
New technology also makes it possible for residents to help keep a digital eye on their own neighborhoods.
“More residents are installing home security systems and doorbell cameras, which can provide photos and video for crimes that might happen in a neighborhood,” Hiatt said. “It’s kind of like a new version of the neighborhood watch groups, but using technology.”
The increasing presence of technology in our everyday lives can also help law enforcement in other ways. For instance, digital platforms can be very useful in seeking help from the public to identify a suspect or a vehicle potentially involved in criminal activity.
“There’s always a debate on releasing information seeking help from the public because the question we ask ourselves is are we going to get information that actually benefits an investigation?” Sundheim said. “Obviously, not everything you see on social media is accurate, but we’ve had a number of cases where the public has provided us with credible and usable information, and we always appreciate that.”