Security Strategy, Plan, Budget

Secret Service, Homeland Security team up on Alabama-based federal cybercrime education facility

An ambitious idea by a state district attorney's association has led to the creation of a first-of-its-kind federal facility designed to train local law enforcement officials from around the country on cybercrime.

The Hoover, Ala.-based National Computer Forensic Institute, launched Friday by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Secret Service, will train police officers, prosecutors and judges on computer forensics and digital evidence analysis.

The 32,000-square-foot facility, part of the public safety building in Hoover, was the brainchild of Randy Hillman and the Alabama District Attorney’s Association.

"We’re being assaulted on the local level by two things," Hillman, the association’s executive director, told today. "First is methamphetamine and the second is computer crimes. Meth, even though it’s a different kind of drug, it’s still drugs. Our difficulty is with the computer stuff. Our difficulty is the science of computers and digital evidence."

"You can walk up to marijuana and, by looking at it, you can tell what it is," he added. "But you can’t tell what’s on someone’s computer or PDA (personal digital assistant) just by looking at it. You need someone trained in extracting that data."

The purpose of the facility, scheduled to open in next January, is to educate local police departments, district attorneys and judges who may be unfamiliar with the technicality of cybercrime cases, Kim Bruce, a Secret Service spokeswoman, told today.

As computer crimes grow in prevalence, authorities will require a more detailed understanding to properly investigate cases, Secret Service Deputy Director Brian Nagel said in a statement.

"Today’s high-tech environment presents new challenges to law enforcement as cybercriminals exploit computers and the internet to threaten our banking, financial and critical infrastructures," he said. "As a result, law enforcement has been propelled into technologically non-traditional terrain requiring specialized skills and innovative applications of traditional investigative strategies."

The facility will include classrooms, a computer forensics lab, an evidence vault, a conference room and exhibit space. Two classes will begin in August in advance of the official opening, Bruce said.

"The same technologies that are a part of everyday life in the 21st century are routinely used by criminal groups for their nefarious activities," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said in the statement. "This institute will turn the tables on these criminal groups and equip law enforcement with sophisticated skills to use the same technologies in combating criminal activity."

Interested participants may enroll in training classes through Secret Service field offices or local police departments, Bruce said.

There is no cost for enrollees, thanks to $9 million in annual funding from DHS. Hillman said he expects the center will train about 1,000 people a year, with plans to expand curriculum for the private sector. Those individuals will be charged a yet-to-be-determined fee.

"This is a nationwide project and an international project," Hillman said. "We’re already getting inquires form other countries."

Click here to email reporter Dan Kaplan.

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