UNT Cyber Forensics Lab
UNT Cyber Forensics Lab melds education and commercialization to improve digital safety
UNT's Cyber Forensics Lab at the UNT New College at Frisco has already made big strides since opening a year ago. Scott Belshaw, assistant professor of criminal justice and cyber lab director, started with a grand vision for a cyber research laboratory solely dedicated to analyzing cellphone data from devices used in criminal activities.
"What we've found is that cellphone analysis is a major need for the North Texas region law enforcement," Belshaw says. "There's such a massive backlog. Think about crimes involving cellphones — law enforcement needs the information in them, and they need it fast."
While the lab has realized great successes on that front — with local and regional law enforcement agencies contracting cellphone investigations that have led to arrests including child pornography and sexual assault — Belshaw says the lab is evolving.
"We now have three main components of the cyber security lab," Belshaw says. "We have the digital forensics aspect, research and innovation and the educational piece. We blend the components together by training people to understand the importance of digital forensics in fighting crime in a modern world."
There are monthly brainstorming and training sessions at the lab that bring together a meeting of the minds, including area law enforcement experts, students from various UNT departments and others from the defense community to determine immediate needs in the industry.
Currently, the research and innovation component is focusing on a partnership with Richardson-based Cyber Defense Labs where researchers and students — including some from the Department of Computer Science and Engineering — have developed anti-piracy technology for movie theaters.
"We've already filed a patent for equipment that uses a laser to prevent the illegal recording of movies," Belshaw says. "It also creates a watermark that blocks the movie from a camera's view."
Students from UNT's College of Visual Arts and Design are helping with packaging for the project. GIS faculty from the Department of Geography and the Environments have been helping the lab with a new software that tracks cellphone data in relation to cell towers to determine whether a suspected criminal was in a specific area at the time of a crime. It takes the data and plugs it into a map that identifies patterns and can be used as evidence by court prosecutors.
"We had one instance where there was a sexual assault that we plotted on a map. From there, we analyzed the cellphone of a suspect who claimed he wasn't in the area at the time of the crime," Belshaw says. "By using the software, we proved the signal was pinging on a tower 200 feet from the crime scene, putting the suspect there at the time of the assault."
Belshaw says there's already a company interested in the licensing of the software and that the lab plans to continue using the research component to develop commercialized products and patents that can help prevent and solve crimes in today's fast-paced digital world.
"We've basically taken cellphone data analysis that used to take three months down to seconds," Belshaw says. "And, in law enforcement, we know that every second counts."