Big Data

Tool will help TSA connect the dots among scattered pieces of digital evidence

Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock.com

The Transportation Security Administration has awarded a contract for technology to mine digital evidence scattered across emails, the cloud, hard drives and digital files stored in the agency’s internal network, according to the system developer.

The tool digests huge volumes of disorganized information, known as big data, according to officials from software firm Nuix.

The company was not authorized to speak to the types of investigations that the technology will help TSA pursue.

TSA’s Focused Operations Branch expects to use the technology for after-the-fact investigations, not screening would-be hijackers -- although agency officials recently said that is a big data effort TSA might pursue.

This type of forensics investigation involves sorting hard facts already collected, and strewn across incongruent data sources, to build solid cases.

“Hypothetically, if they have an individual they have profiled in the past digitally or digital information on previously profiled individuals, Nuix could provide visibility into additional connections to other people,” said Peter Morse, U.S. public sector director for Nuix.

TSA officials could not comment in time for publication.

Generally, investigators use evidence synthesized by such software to convict criminals, or to piece together proof of ongoing criminal activity, Morse said.

Investigators for the Internal Revenue Service’s Criminal Investigation division, Health and Human Services Department inspector general, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, for example, cull evidence of fraud with the software.

According to TSA’s contract specifications, the technology must be able to crunch up to 1.5 terabytes daily, or the amount of paper made from 75,000 trees.

Here is how it works: With the software, a federal agent can find out who an individual has emailed incriminating information to, based on seized computers, while simultaneously inferring which websites that individual has visited based on cloned hard drive data. At the same time, the agent can be examining the timestamp on a digital photo file retrieved from a smartphone to determine where the suspect was on a certain date.

The technology does not intercept emails, wiretap smartphones or perform other types of real-time surveillance. Rather, it extracts emails, digital recordings or other communications and files that an agency has collected in the past, Morse said.  

The contract cost was not disclosed.

(Image via Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock.com)

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