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Tuesday 08 March, 2005
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Investigator uses digital tools to solve mysteries

With the digitalization of commerce, information and entertainment - even social interaction - private investigator William Simon sees an increase in the demand for a relatively new science: computer forensics.

"Computer forensics is the science of recovering data that has been erased or deleted," Simon said. "Using specific tools, we are able to reconstruct data, recover files and establish who did what when."

Simon, who has 20 years of experience with computers and is now president and lead investigator of Abberline Computer Investigations, said there are many applications for computer forensics. He's done a lot of work with attorneys in criminal cases. In one instance, his investigation proved that an employee accused of corporate espionage had not even been in the office on the day in question.

As computer use has become widespread in families, the usefulness of forensics in certain family situations is only logical.

"There have been cases involving runaways in which examining their emails has led to finding them," Simon said. He tells of a case where a teenage girl interested in the "Goth" movement fell in love with a man in his 30s who claimed to be a "master vampire." She ran away to meet him and was located after her computer was investigated.

According to Simon, "One of the biggest requests these days is from concerned parents. They want to know who their children are chatting with online and what they can do to protect them."

He says computers should always be kept in a common area and never in an enclosed bedroom. There are computer programs parents can use to monitor their children that record each and every keystroke. There are also programs that attempt to block access to "adult" sites or other questionable materials, but Simon said they are not always effective.

"Any 14-year-old who knows what they're doing can bypass it," he said. "These [access-blocking] programs are written in English, and many of the sites are French, Russian, German or Belgian." All they have to do, he said, is type in a site name in another language, or type in the site's direct IP address in numbers instead of words.

So what do parents do when their children are technologically savvy? Simon said that's when active interest from parents comes into the equation.

"Take interest in what your child is doing," he said. "Be open. A lot of times, the first reaction when finding adult material on the computer is anger - but that's the worst thing you can do." He said that only sends the message that it's not something children can discuss with Mom and Dad.

Computer forensics are also used extensively in child pornography cases. Simon said there is a well-known case where a pedophile had reformatted his computer's hard drive 40 times in an attempt to erase it, but forensic experts still recovered enough material to convict him.

Simon holds to a principle coined in 1910 by Edmond Locard which says that anyone entering a scene leaves something behind and takes something of the scene away with them. He said that's never more true than with computers.

"Reformatting and deleting does not get rid of the information. There is no real way to delete things off your computer except by smashing it to pieces," he said.

Simon has been involved in information technology and computers for the past two decades and said his first computer was a Tandy 1000. He is now a certified Texas investigator by the Texas Association of Licensed Investigators.

Forensics started to interest him in 1996 when a client asked to have a second modem installed to monitor off-site business locations. That modem started having problems, and when Simon tried to troubleshoot it, he discovered the client had been downloading a great deal of pornography.

Simon said corporate fraud fascinates him because he knows the truth is out there, it just needs to be found.

For more about Simon and Abberline Computer Investigations, visit www.abberline.com.



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