FIU News recently sat down with Matt Ruddell—adjunct professor of digital forensics at the College of Engineering & Computing (CEC) and a member of the National Forensic Science Technology Center, a program at FIU that specializes in digital forensic course development and instruction—to learn more about digital forensics, the university's new Digital Forensics Professional Program and his role at FIU.
Ruddell spent 15 years working for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in the agency’s crime laboratory, 12 of those years in the digital forensics section. Ruddell has worked more than a thousand criminal investigations, involving everything from homicides to sexual assaults, child exploitation cases and crimes involving fraud and drug trafficking. He helped to develop and implement the advanced techniques presently used by law enforcement experts to extract data from previously deemed inaccessible mobile devices.
What is digital forensics?
Reality crime shows have done a great job of introducing the concept to the public. However, by definition, forensics is the application of science to the law. Digital forensics takes it to another level by applying digital data to the science of forensics. The digital information is extracted from devices, examined and then provided as evidence in criminal investigations.
Tell me about the new Digital Forensics Professional Program. What is the program (or specific course) about?
The program is offered through the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering within CEC. It consists of four distinct courses designed to provide working professionals with an introduction to digital data recovery, forensic analysis, investigative procedures, and the guiding laws, ethical standards and policy of the trade. After successfully completing all four courses, students are awarded a certificate of completion.
Who would be considered the ideal student to enroll in this course?
Anyone interested in digital forensics is an ideal candidate. We do expect to see great interest amongst FIU CEC students, but the program is very much open to the public, regardless of individual level of experience in the field. We also expect there to be great interest among law and pre-law, computer science, criminology and cybersecurity students. Established forensics professionals, who have yet to explore the world of digital forensics, are also likely to enroll. From members of smaller police departments to retired military men and women, seeking to transition into the workforce, we are hoping to attract all those interested in learning more about this fascinating science, which is changing the way crimes are investigated and persecuted all over the world.
Tell us about yourself. What has your experience been in the digital forensics’ world?
I tell people that I took a backward route into my current career. My undergraduate degree is in chemistry. After graduation, I went to work for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), processing toxicology tests. When the work started to feel repetitive, I got bored. Since biology was never my strong suit, I was unable to work on DNA testing, so I started hanging out with my colleagues at FDLE’s computer forensics lab. When a position on their team opened, I jumped on it and spent the next eight months in an extensive training program. After 12 years at FDLE, I got the teaching bug and became a part-time teacher as a defense contractor for the federal government. A little over a year and a half ago, I became a full-time adjunct professor at FIU.
What was it like to work in the crime laboratory of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement? What was your role there?
I worked in the digital evidence section, so I focused on collecting and examining digital data evidence and providing local investigators with its full analysis. FDLE supports all law enforcement agencies across Florida. The FDLE lab I worked at in Tallahassee serves the entire northern half of the state, so we were busy. After extracting and processing the data, we would provide our findings to local law enforcement leading the investigation we were working on. As digital forensics experts, we were also often subpoenaed to appear in court as witnesses for the state.
How does digital forensics affect our everyday lives?
This question can easily be answered with another question. How much of our lives are digitally stored in our smartphones, home computers, portable tablets, etc.? I am still blown away by what people willingly share via text, email and on social platforms. Most digital communications are stored and ultimately retrievable. If it is on a digital device, it can become evidence in a criminal case. Digital evidence has also evolved to the point that it is being used by expert criminal profilers to determine a subject’s state-of-mind. While fingerprints and DNA evidence tell us who did it, digital evidence is helping us determine why.
What do you hope students will learn from this course? What kind of employment opportunities will it give them?
I hope students take full advantage of what this program has to offer. It provides them with a solid introduction to digital forensics while helping them to develop strong proficiencies in the latest techniques and tools of the trade. An expertise in digital forensics can be of great value to individuals pursuing several different career paths. Law enforcement is simply one area that this expertise benefits. The demand for well-trained, digital forensics experts is in high demand. This expertise is also being extensively used in the field of computer science, where securing data networks and improving credentialing processes is critical to ensuring effective cybersecurity.
Fun fact question! What’s your biggest forensics pet peeve about crime shows?
I’m baffled by what I call the CSI effect. What you see on TV is not the reality of this profession. However, I would say that my biggest pet peeve about crime shows is how immediate they make the work appear. TV crime analysis happens at a much faster rate than forensic digital data analysis does in real life. Forensic exams can take weeks to months to conclude. The process is a lot more methodical and time consuming. We are scientists first. TV takes the true science out of the game and replaces it with dramatized fantasy. The work we do is extremely sensitive. It can mean the difference between life and death for some or freedom and incarceration for others. We take what we do very seriously and know how critical it is that we get it right. The outcome of a case is not our concern. The integrity of our science is.
For more information, visit the National Forensic Science Technology Center website.