Man’s Best Friend is Now a Cyber Criminal’s Worst Enemy

Dogs have been used for law enforcement purposes since the Middle Ages when bloodhounds were trained to hunt for outlaws. England’s King Henry I was so fond of using dogs to keep out intruders that he had an entire system of stables, kennels and mews designed to protect the Royal Palaces. By the time the 19th century rolled around and crime was at an all-time high in a rapidly urbanizing London, dogs became standard issue alongside firearms for independent night watchmen that patrolled the crime-ridden streets. Despite the popularity of these private citizens using dogs to deter crime, police agencies were skeptical that a dog was just as good – if not better – at being a police officer than a man.

The first official use of police dogs in the modern era was in 1869 when serial killer Jack the Ripper was wreaking havoc in the Whitechapel district of London. The Metropolitan Police were having a difficult time identifying the murderer, let alone capturing him, and decided to let two bloodhounds loose in a desperate attempt to capture Jack the Ripper before he struck again. Unfortunately, the dogs were not trained properly and one of them ran away while the other one bit the police Commissioner. Needless to say, this did not impress the skeptical police agencies.

Although Jack the Ripper was never caught, other European countries began to experiment with the notion of training dogs for official police duty – most notably Ghent, Belgium. It was here where the first organized police dog service program was established in 1899 and the rest of the world noticed that dogs could in fact be used to assist police officers. Soon, scientific training methods were instituted and police forces in Austria-Hungary, Germany and Britain had dogs on their squads to help them catch criminals.

Since then, police dogs have been trained to not only attack bad guys, but to help find explosives, arson accelerants, cadavers, weapons and drugs. Here in the United States, K-9 units are an integral part of most police agencies and it’s not uncommon for the dog to carry a badge. Dogs have become so prevalent to crime fighting that they are even considered to be full-fledged police officers and are treated as such. Attacking a K-9 unit in America carries the same penalty as attacking a human police officer, and it’s also considered acceptable for an officer to open fire on anyone that tries to hurt a police dog.

Now that we’re in the 21st century, criminals have changed their methods of committing crime, but so have police dogs in their method of catching criminals. There are now two police dogs in the United States (Connecticut and Rhode Island) that are trained to sniff out computer storage devices. Hard drives, memory sticks, flash cards and anything else that stores digital files can now be detected by police dogs.

Apparently, training dogs to do this isn’t as difficult as you would think. Dog trainers use the same scientific methods developed to teach dogs how to detect contraband, but substitute drugs with storage devices. First, the handler will wash the dog’s favorite toy so no scent is detected and let the dog play with it for a while. Then, a storage device is hidden alongside the toy in areas where cyber criminals tend to conceal them. Once the dog is let loose and starts looking for the toy, it soon begins to associate the smell of storage devices with the toy. Before long, the dog is always on alert every time a storage device is nearby.

“If it has a memory card, he’ll sniff it out.”

–Detective Adam Houston referring to his gadget-sniffing Golden Labrador Retriever

Recently, a police dog named Thoreau netted his first seizure with the Rhode Island Police Department. After 22 weeks of training, Thoreau was used by the police to find a flash drive hidden inside a tin box within a metal cabinet belonging to a suspected child pornographer. Because of Thoreau’s find, the police were able to secure an arrest warrant and put the criminal behind bars.

Cybercrime is not only limited to obscene content. Fraud, harassment, threats, terrorism, warfare and even drug trafficking can all be committed over a computer network. Because most of these cyber criminals hide the evidence on storage devices, being able to find them is a crucial component of securing arrests. As more police dogs become trained in this method, the fewer cybercriminals there will be.

But what does this all mean for cybercrime methods? If storage devices are no longer safe from the police, will cyber criminals turn to the cloud to conceal their crimes? Or will cyber criminals switch to physical crimes on the streets? These are all important questions that will undoubtedly become a topic of debate, but as more of our lives become embedded into a digital footprint, it’s dogs like Thoreau that will keep us safe.

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