Johnson County’s cybercrime team is expanding following a Coralville City Council authorization Tuesday to collaborate with the local task force.
A Coralville police will join the county’s cybercrime team, further strengthening a countywide crackdown on cyber crimes.
The Joint Forensic Analysis Cyber Team (J-FACT) includes the University of Iowa Department of Public Safety, the Iowa City Police Department, and the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office. Coralville and North Liberty are the newest members. Each department contributes resources of its own, including one officer per department.
In investigations, the task force analyzes electronic devices such as cell phones, laptops, and gaming consoles. The cases they handle range from child exploitation to child pornography
J-FACT was formed with further training in mind, collaborating with local departments to expand cybercrime knowledge and expertise. The program helps officers complete train for their Certified Forensic Computer Examiner certification.
Johnson County Sheriff Brad Kunkel said officers undergo an “intense” certification process.
The program was established in 2021, with the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office, Iowa City Police and the University of Iowa Public Safety originally signing on. J-Fact immediately uncovered a substantial caseload, analyzing several crimes throughout the area. Adding officers from North Liberty late last year and Coralville this week will help J-Fact to operate more effectively, Kunkel said.
“They do an incredible amount of work by volume,” Kunkel said. “But it’s also a shocking realization about the amount of work out there is for them to do, especially when talking about child sex abuse material and child pornography.”
The task force investigated nearly 1,000 devices throughout the fiscal year 2022, including more than 550 cell phones from departments across eastern Iowa. The unit has already investigated more than 950 devices since last July, on pace to exceed the previous year’s workload.
“As our world’s become so piled into what we do on our phones, it becomes the ultimate collector of evidence,” Kunkel said. “It just seems to be that one continuous, constant component of a case: At least one cell phone is involved.”
When is the task force deployed and how are they funded?
Several sources tip off local law enforcement, especially when dealing with child exploitation and sex crimes where additional technological evidence is vital. The task force leans on help from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Internet Crimes Against Children, or ICAC.
Tips are also provided by social media companies like Meta as well as search engine data from Google. They’ll even receive concerned phone calls and walk-ins.
Once investigators believe electronic data is needed, the department will secure a search warrant and analyze social media accounts and phone records. That device is then handed over to the task force for further investigation.
Kunkel said much of J-FACT’s budget is spent on software licensing, though they make up for those costs by invoicing other agencies who bring in devices. The task force also receives a monetary supplement from ICAC.
“What’s $100 to examine a cell phone for a child sex assault case? I mean, it’s a no-brainer,” Kunkel said. “We don’t want to price out any other agencies too, but it’s expensive and we need a way to kind of lighten that financial burden.”
J-FACT is a model for local collaboration, sheriff says
Speed and efficiency are important in the cybercrime world.
Kunkel witnessed a cyber task force’s impact and heavy workload during a child pornography investigation he was involved in before becoming Johnson County sheriff. He submitted evidence to a task force in Cedar Rapids and was shocked that it sometimes took more than a year to analyze.
That experience pushed Kunkel to find a better way to investigate cyber crimes.
It was one of his key talking points in his local campaign for office. After becoming sheriff in 2020, Kunkel began coordinating with University of Iowa PD and Iowa City police to create their own one-of-a-kind task force. Coralville and North Liberty have since joined.
“The idea that we now have five local agencies who have pooled their people and resources and put everybody under one roof to do the same work, I don’t know that there’s another [task force] out there like it,” Kunkel said.
The scope of cases sometimes even crosses oceans. Last year, the task force worked a case that began locally and eventually led to a criminal’s conviction in the United Arab Emirates, Kunkel said.
“These are people who are grooming or trying to access or solicit child sex abuse material from across the country, sometimes around the world,” he said.
The task force has increased its caseload as departments across eastern Iowa learn about the program’s capabilities.
“Two years ago, there were a very small number of agencies, if any, across the state that could do this,” Kunkel said. “The role they play in criminal investigations is pretty incredible.”
Ryan Hansen covers local government and crime for the Press-Citizen. He can be reached email@example.com or on Twitter @ryanhansen01.