HHS digital investigators connect with cloud to manage ever-growing data for legal cases

Imagine a tractor-trailer filled with paper documents – that is roughly equivalent to one terabyte of data. As Stephen Niemczak, special agent in charge with the Office of Investigations at the Department of Health and Human Services, said it could take digital investigators a while to sift through.

The Digital Investigations Branch in HHS’ Office of Inspector General has a team of highly skilled digital investigators and forensic computer examiners responsible for identifying, preserving, collecting and analyzing electronically stored information, and supporting criminal investigations. After conducting any additional digital investigations, the team shares that information with special agents and prosecutors for use in judicial proceedings, Niemczak said.

Massive amounts of data require sufficient storage while it is investigated, and a chain of custody to ensure integrity of the data by the time it reaches the courtroom.

“It’s extremely important for our people to be trained in handling evidence properly. And one of the reasons that we provide so much training to our individuals and have that subject matter expertise is to make sure that we can maintain the integrity and authenticity of that information for use in judicial proceedings,” Neimczak said on Federal Monthly Insights – Special Bulletin: Digital Investigations.

The branch relies on cloud solutions that interconnect all of their offices nationwide, and allow team members to remotely access or distribute workloads. If one office sees a surge in investigations activity, the cloud makes it easier to leverage national resources, he said. That’s also important considering some investigation are inherently national rather than regional, and because keeping up with the pace of technological advances is challenging enough.

“What used to be stored on somebody’s laptop hard drive.. now can be stored in multiple different locations, including the cloud or mobile device applications or a variety of different technologies that are now part of our normal daily lives,” Neimczak said on Federal Drive with Tom Temin. “And that can create challenges for us to be able to identify where that data or [electronically stored information] actually is held.”

These days, medical fraud is not just found in scattered PDFs or physical copies of personal files. The data can come from mobile devices, cloud accounts, proprietary systems for medical billing, or from electronic health records. Neimczak said that adds to the complexity of his work, and calls for subject matter experts in IT.

As far as emerging technologies to assist digital investigations, he said the branch implemented a centralized web review platform several years ago. It is remotely accessible nationwide, so that once digital investigators and forensic examiners pass on information to special agents and prosecutors, the branch’s internal and external partners can share the workload.

“And when we’re able to have multiple users working on one data set, that allows us to create a force multiplier effect in order to be able to move the investigative process forward as quickly as possible,” he said.

Digital investigators, themselves, more commonly perform a support function to cases. Neimczak said the branch has been trying to help special agents evolve through technology skills but having the subject matter expertise is still crucial. It takes ongoing training to maintain the proficiency needed to keep pace with technology.

“Quite frankly, all investigations involve a digital component now, if you think about it. So it’s imperative for organizations – and like I said, ours is moving in that direction – in order to equip all investigators, whether they be special agents or part of my team, to have the skills to be effective in this regard,” he said.

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