NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Each year the Metro Nashville Police Department Criminal Investigations Division collects thousands of phones, computers and other devices in order to gather digital evidence.
That evidence has proved vital in several high-profile cases, with nearly 80% of every violent crime or crime against a child now involving some type of digital evidence, said MNPD Detective Chad Gish, who testified in the Caitlyn Kaufman murder trial and 2017 Vanderbilt rape trial.
However, manually processing an average of three mobile devices per case takes time. In just one child sexual exploitation case, Gish said there could be several terabytes of data to recover.
“You could have something sitting on a shelf waiting to be analyzed for months that has keys to unlock information that would lead you to the rescue of a child that’s being abused,” said Jad Saliba, the founder and chief technology officer of Magnet Forensics.
Now, new technology designed by Magnet Forensics is speeding up the process. With Magnet AUTOMATE, a solution that uses automation to recover and process digital evidence, the MNPD’s forensics unit has been able to completely eliminate a months-long backlog in cases.
“We installed AUTOMATE the last part of June 2022. We had somewhere I would say in the neighborhood of 400 to 500 cases backlogged,” Gish said. “We ripped through that backlog with AUTOMATE, which is amazing for crime victims now and for the court process.”
‘It’s like having a fleet of examiners sitting in our lab’
Within a week of using the software, the MNPD was able to complete what would have previously amounted to nearly six months of investigative work.
Beforehand, Gish said police were spending “about 70%” of their time doing what AUTOMATE now does for them— something police agencies across the globe are dealing with as the volume of digital evidence continues to grow.
“The amount of data has just skyrocketed,” Saliba said. “We’ve really seen over the past few years everyone’s just getting overwhelmed with the amount of data that they’re trying to get through and they’re seeing that they need to find ways to get more efficient in the lab.”
The solution works like an assembly line for digital evidence. Police set it up to automatically recover and process data from devices, and once a task is finished it moves onto the next case. That allows digital investigations to continue over the weekends and holidays.
“We can load those up before we go home at night and it’s like having a fleet of examiners sitting in our lab, processing this data that’s already processed when we get back in the morning or over the weekend,” Gish said. “If we were doing that manually it would take hours and hours.”
Gish said that data, which includes evidence like photos, GPS locations, text messages, emails and internet browsing history, can now be relayed back to the lead homicide investigator within as soon as 24 hours after a crime is committed.
“There’s real impact to being able to get to data faster, getting it in the hands of investigators who are the ones that have really got that intimate knowledge of the case,” Saliba said. “It can really change the course of an investigation and change the outcome of that investigation.”
Digital data’s crucial role in high-profile trials
Not only does it help “get criminals off the street faster,” but also, Gish said digital evidence has played a crucial role in many cases he’s worked on during his 25 plus years with the MNPD.
“Every high-profile case I can think of that I’ve been involved in Nashville in the last 10 years has had some type of digital evidence that was extremely significant,” he said.
Gish took the stand in 2017 to describe some of the most incriminating evidence in the Vanderbilt University rape trial against ex-football player Brandon Banks. Among the evidence presented was three videos showing the assault and several graphic cell phone pictures.
There was also an “enormous amount” of digital evidence in the recent trial of two men accused of shooting and killing Nashville nurse Caitlyn Kaufman on Interstate 440, much of which dealt with GPS locations and text messages. Gish said he put up nearly 130 exhibits during the trial.
“We had no idea when Caitlyn Kaufman was murdered on I-440,” he said. “But I knew if I could get to her phone, I could pinpoint the time she was murdered to probably the exact second by looking at different data like GPS inside of her phone, and that’s what we were able to do.”
The MNPD is among several agencies that have adopted Magnet AUTOMATE, not only in the U.S. but across the world. The Greater Manchester Police, one of the largest police agencies in Europe, began using the program last year for child exploitation investigations.
Since then, the Greater Manchester Police have been able to process digital evidence 55% faster and complete digital investigations an average of 9.5 hours faster.
“It’s amazing how much people doing this work really care and they’ve dedicated their lives to doing this work. We’re really proud to build things like AUTOMATE that help support them,” Saliba said. “But they’re the ones that are really doing that important work.”
| READ MORE | Latest headlines from Nashville and Davidson County
With an ever-growing digital world, the overall impact of the new technology is twofold. Gish said it also plays a role in improving officer wellness by reducing caseloads, which can weigh heavily on officers assigned with numerous violent crimes cases and crimes against children.
“It completely helps my wellness and everybody in my lab,” he said. “The number one thing is working these cases and getting them solved for our citizens here. The number two is we have to take care of each other and AUTOMATE helps us with both of those tasks.”