Electronics-sniffing dogs: How K9s became a secret weapon for solving high-tech crimes

Law enforcement has trained special dogs to find hidden thumb drives and cell phones that human investigators routinely miss, and it's foiling predators, terrorists, and other criminals.

The call came at 5:30 am on a hot July morning in 2015. The Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department told canine trainer Todd Jordan and his detection dog Bear to meet them at a house in Zionsville, Indiana. It was "kind of a big deal," Jordan was told, but he had no idea why. Ten minutes after arriving at the large, beige brick home, he had his answer.

"We're getting ready to hit Jared Fogle's house," an agent said.

Investigators from the FBI, the Indianapolis police, the Indiana State Police, and the US Postal Inspection Service searched the former Subway spokesman's house for two hours, carrying away computers and electronics, looking for evidence of Fogle's alleged child pornography distribution.

Then, it was Bear's turn. The black labrador retriever was trained to detect electronics—everything from thumb drives to cell phones. He can even sniff out tiny microSD cards that are less than a millimeter thick, but can hold 100s of gigabytes of data.

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Bear searched the entire residence. He targeted several areas in Fogle's office, and uncovered a hidden flash drive that the humans hadn't detected.

When Fogle was arrested on charges of child pornography a month later, Assistant US Attorney Steven Debrota said that this piece of evidence was vital to the investigation.

"I didn't realize until that time that the dog had actually found something in there—I just wasn't privy to that information," said Jordan, CEO of Jordan Detection K9. It was only the fifth time Bear had been out on a search.

Fogle pleaded guilty to sex acts with minors and distribution of child pornography, and in a November 2015 verdict was sentenced to more than 15 years in prison and a $175,000 fine.

Later that summer, Bear assisted in the search of the Indianapolis home and gym of US Olympics gymnastics coach Marvin Sharp. He led investigators to a gun safe, with a number of SD cards hidden inside. Sharp was arrested in August 2015 on one count of felony child molestation.

"Think about a microSD card that's as big as your pinky fingernail," Jordan said. "That's what the dog is finding. It would be almost impossible for investigators."

Jordan often brings electronic storage detection dogs—ESD dogs for short—like Bear into rooms stacked floor to ceiling with trash, after investigators have searched for hours. "Within 10 minutes, the dogs will hit on a box, and you open it up and there's SD cards and external hard drives," Jordan said.

Today, Bear is one of a handful of ESD dogs scattered across America, who are pioneering a low-tech way to solve high-tech crimes involving child exploitation and terrorism.

Isolating the right chemical

In 2012, Connecticut State Police Trooper First Class Mike Real was summoned to a meeting with his major, who asked if it would be possible to train a dog to locate computer hard drives.

"The sergeant from the computer crimes unit relayed to us that when they executed search warrants, they were always missing something because of the nature of what they were looking for," Real said. "In conferences he attended around the country, this was a common theme."

The unit was familiar with canine work: In 1986, the Connecticut State Police trained the world's first arson dog.

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Bear, one of the first trained ESD dogs, found a thumb drive in former Subway spokesman Jared Fogle's house that contained evidence that helped put him in jail.

Image: Seattle Police Photo Unit

The team looped in Dr. Jack Hubball, a chemist at the forensic laboratory in the Division of Scientific Services. "My first reaction was a lot of skepticism," Hubball said. "But I've worked with arson, drug, and bomb units for over 30 years, so I have a lot of faith in the dogs, and a lot of knowledge about what their capabilities were."

Hubball examined hard drives, thumb drives, SD drives—every type of electronic storage device available. The common denominator? A circuit board.

He began testing various circuit board components, and about six months later, identified a compound called triphenylphosphine oxide (TPPO)—which covers the circuit boards in all storage devices from large hard drives down to microSD cards to keep them from overheating.

Another compound, hydroxycyclohexyl phenyl ketone (HPK), was extracted from removable media, such as CDs, DVDs, Blu-Rays, and even floppy disks.

With the chemical key, Real and another trooper began training two labrador retrievers named Selma and Thoreau. The dogs came from New York's Guiding Eyes for the Blind, where the team also obtains its narcotics, bomb, and arson canines. "Essentially, we get their incorrigible dogs who aren't cut out for guide work, and happen to be perfect for us," Real said. Lab retrievers are the best breed for this type of work, Real said, due to their high-energy nature and strong retrieval capabilities.

Similar to drug or arson detection dogs, electronics detection dogs are trained to recognize a chemical odor, and to sit when the odor is present, in order to alert their handler. When the dog correctly identifies an odor, he or she gets food.

Officers begin training the dogs to identify large amounts of the compound, eventually using less and less. They place devices with the odor in different boxes, and expand the training into different rooms. The Connecticut program spends five weeks imprinting the dogs with the odor and teaching them how to do their job, and then six weeks training them to work with their handlers, Real said.

"We teach them everything from searching people, boxes, bags, vehicles, outside," Real said. "Anywhere these dogs might be asked to search, we train them to work in that environment."

All of Connecticut's and Jordan Detection K9's ESD dogs are on a food-reward diet: They only eat when they find a device, so handlers must be prepared to run trainings every single day to keep their skills sharp and their bellies full.

After successfully completing training, yellow lab Thoreau went to the Rhode Island State Police in 2013. Black lab Selma began working with Detective George Jupin, in the Connecticut State Police Computer Crimes Unit. Selma has worked on more than 100 cases so far, primarily in child pornography, but also homicides, parolee compliance work, and a hacking case. Her strong nose helped uncover devices in recycling bins, in vents, and in radiators.

"This program has absolutely turned up evidence that would have been missed or overlooked," Jupin said. "They're picking up odors that you can't. If a device is hidden in a drawer, under a table, in a vent, in a wall, the dog picks up on it."

Success in Seattle

By the spring of 2015, Detective Ian Polhemus of the Seattle Police Department was emotionally exhausted. After more than seven years on the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force, Polhemus was considering quitting—the number of cases of child exploitation and pornography had taken a deep mental toll.

Not wanting to lose a senior detective, Polhemus' captain suggested contacting the Connecticut State Police's ESD program. "I said, 'If I could work a dog again and not have to look at child pornography, I'll stay,'" Polhemus said.

After the success of Selma and Thoreau, the Connecticut State Police was planning to run a training class the following year. Polhemus was disappointed—he didn't want to wait that long to start working with a canine. Then, the Jared Fogle case hit the national news.

Polhemus contacted Jordan, and two weeks later, in August 2015, he was on a plane to Indiana to purchase Bear and train for two weeks with him. The dog cost $10,000. For a month, Polhemus focused on bonding with and socializing Bear to the office and team.

In September 2015, on Bear's first deployment, he found a cell phone that investigators missed.

Bear's first year in Seattle, he assisted on 56 search warrants, and assisted in the identification of more than 500 devices in pre-searches. In post-searches, he uncovered 16 devices that would have otherwise been completely overlooked by the human search team, Polhemus said. That means about 25% of the time, Bear finds a device that the search team did not.

"If a device is hidden in a drawer, under a table, in a vent, in a wall, the dog picks up on it."
George Jupin, detective for Connecticut State Police Computer Crimes Unit

"In 2016, you can't pick a crime where there might not potentially be a nexus to the storage of contraband on digital items," Polhemus said. "Gangs, drugs, homicide—it doesn't matter. These ESD dogs can be deployed in support of any criminal investigation."

When Bear and Polhemus go into a residence after a search team, one team member stays behind to alert Polhemus of the areas where digital evidence was already recovered. This way, if Bear detects residue odor, Polhemus knows it is not a false positive.

Bear has found storage devices in empty coffee cans, tupperware containers, and under piles of junk in his searches throughout Washington state.

ESD dogs live with their handlers full time. When Bear comes home, he's a regular house dog, Polhemus said, other than the extra training exercises needed to feed him.

"I had a coworker tell me several weeks after I started working with Bear, 'You know Ian, you are just such a more pleasant person now that you're working with Bear,'" he said, laughing. "I loving working the dog. He's good mental health for me. It's a great opportunity for me to still continue to support the mission of ICAC without having to do the dirty stuff."

Jordan Detection K9 has since trained six ESDs, who are now working in ICAC task forces across the nation.

The power of 'show me'

In the chill of February 2016, the Connecticut State Police began its first full training class of five ESD labrador dogs, spending five weeks imprinting the dogs on the chemical scent. Handlers from the FBI, the Massachusetts State Police, the Southern Virginia ICAC, the St. Charles County, Missouri Police Department, and the Anchorage, Alaska Police Department arrived in March to train for an additional six weeks with their new K9 partners.

Connecticut's program does not charge agencies for the dogs and training, though that might change with tightening budgets, Real said.

The handlers partnered with their dogs to work through every scenario they might encounter. Police even created a bomb explosion in an empty warehouse, to demonstrate the odors found in that scene.

Special Agent Jeffrey Calandra of the FBI's Newark, New Jersey Field Office was assigned an eager black lab named Iris, who started working counterintelligence investigations with him after the two graduated the program in April 2016. Common cases for Calandra involve organized crime, drug gangs, and cyber crimes, including child pornography.

Iris joins Calandra on an average of one search per week, up and down the east coast. When she catches an odor, she starts to salivate, her ears perk up, her tail wags, and she starts sniffing, before sitting down to alert Calandra.

"Show me," Calandra will say, and Iris will put her nose as close to the source of the odor as possible.

On one search warrant, the FBI hunted through a room with a desk, and left confident that there was nothing there. But Iris alerted to something on the top drawer.

Calandra opened it, but didn't see any evidence. "Show me," he said. Iris pushed her nose onto a pad of sticky notes.

"I figured 'Okay, she's falsing, she hasn't been fed, so she's trying to steal food from me,'" Calandra said. He tried to pull Iris away from the desk drawer. But she pulled him back.

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Iris completes a practice training demonstration, in which an SD card was placed behind the wall molding, and Iris located it.

Image: Newark FBI

Again, he said "Show me," and again, she put her nose on the sticky notes. He took everything out of the drawer, but still didn't see anything of value.

Once more, Calandra commanded, "Show me." Iris picked up the pad of sticky notes with her mouth, and flipped it over. A microSD card fell out.

"She was correct, and I was wrong," Calandra said. "Either the individual was concealing it, or it happened to get stuck in between the pad, and you just couldn't see it. That's why the dogs are good."

Calandra trains Iris to find devices in fake shaving cream cans, fake coins, and books with pages cut out to conceal something. "I'll put a phone in a book, and I'll put the book on a shelf with 300 other books, and she'll put her nose right on the book with the phone in it," Calandra said. "It's insane."

False positives are usually not a problem, Calandra said. "I'm not really worried about the false positives as much as I am if she misses something," he said. "But there hasn't been a case where the dog has missed something."

Dogs like Iris have helped the FBI "tremendously," said Laura Robinson, special agent and coordinator for the FBI Evidence Response Team at the Newark Field Office. "Thumb drives can be disguised as pens, toys, thumb tacks, almost anything," she said. "They're going to find things we wouldn't have any hope of finding. The more sophisticated our target, the more helpful they can be."

FBI Supervisory Special Agent Brian Herron, in a previous position at the Newark Field Office, was part of the team that approved the purchase of Iris. "We get status reports on what the dog finds," Herron said. While there is not yet data on the amount of evidence Iris has brought in, "she has definitely expanded the capabilities of identifying and locating evidence," Herron said.

It may be best if technology companies don't know too much about the capabilities of the ESD dogs, Calandra said. "For us, it's a tool for criminal cases," he said. "I'm sure people are going to try to find ways to combat her abilities, which is why we try to limit what we say or some of the ways people hide things. I don't want to give people ideas on how to combat it."

Potential for the private sector

Before starting Jordan Detection K9, Jordan trained Bear and other ESD dogs while working for Tactical Detection K-9, a company based in Louisville, Kentucky and owned by Dennis Clark. Clark has worked with canines for more than 30 years, training more than 1,500 drug dogs, bomb dogs, and cadaver dogs across his career.

Interest in ESD dogs rose quickly after the Fogle case hit headlines, Clark said. "We had those dogs for sale for a year and never got a bite," Clark said. "The Jared thing happened, and 'bam!' everybody wanted one."

As with many detection dogs, the market for ESD dogs fluctuates according to domestic and world events, Clark said. For example, after the Boston bombing, many police departments wanted a bomb dog. Eventually the craze dies down. Only drug dogs remain a mainstay in police departments, he said.

Thus far, typically only large police departments have the need and the budget to purchase an electronics dog, Clark said. But interest from the private sector is growing steadily.

"There is no technology that can match their natural, God-given gifts."
Dennis Clark, owner of Tactical Detection K-9

One large company, who Clark describes as "not Google, but along those lines," recently approached Clark asking him to train dogs to identify bugging devices in corporate offices or the CEO's home, to combat corporate espionage.

The company is funding the Tactical Detection K-9 research on these devices, Clark said. In August, Clark began working with a lab to find the main odor elements. Once isolated, Clark will train a bug detection dog for them, and market the service to other companies as well.

He said he plans to have the research completed this fall, and the training finished by May.

While drug and bomb dogs sell from around $4,500 to $5,500, ESD dogs from private sellers like Clark go for $9,500 to $11,000, he said.

There are electronics detection devices on the market, such as the wands used at TSA checkpoints. But they often give false readings, Clark said. "Those machines are expensive, and are always breaking down or being outdated," Clark said. "Even though it may seem old-school using a dog, there is no technology that can match their natural, God-given gifts."

The gold standard

Tactical Detection K9's second ESD dog, Daisy, was sold to private contractor Spartan K9 in 2015.

"We decided to purchase a dog capable of doing that type of work to learn more about how to train the dog more successfully," said Fred Hopper, CEO of Spartan K9. "The biggest goal was to get a better understanding of the olfactory of the dogs, and how to marry up a sharp training program to the right type of dog, so you can get a dog in the field without a high false indication rate."

Spartan K9 now has four ESD dogs, two of which are in service for searches, while the other two are used for research and development. Hopper said could not discuss any cases due to confidentiality agreements and ongoing law enforcement investigations.

More private companies are investigating training ESD dogs, Hopper said. Generally, the training is being done in-house, in similar ways to the Connecticut State Police program. "There aren't a lot of new ways to train dogs," Hopper said. "These are tried and true methods that ring true for any style of scent dogs."

The private industry canine model as a whole has grown due to terrorism threats, Hopper said. It's more common now to see private contract canines than in years past, he added, and he believes the industry will continue to grow.

"The fact that a dog can locate these types of devices leaves a lot of room for companies worried about the loss of their data or anything confidential," Hopper said. "These dogs have the ability to help with that as a screening process, and make sure information that's considered private isn't filtered out. In the world of technology, a lot of patent secrets and trade stuff all needs to be protected."

Spartan K9 has also been approached by a large tech company to discuss providing a dog, Hopper said.

"We don't look at man's best friend as an asset of technology, which we've proven working in this field," Hopper said. "The first use of a canine in helping get a crime solved was about 100 years ago. Here we are so far down the road, and the dog is still the gold standard."

A dog's capabilities

Humans are "not even close" to tapping the full potential of canine abilities, said Craig Angle, co-director of the Canine Performance Sciences (CPS) program at Auburn University's College of Veterinary Medicine, which researches the science behind canine detection.

"The dog's capability is far greater than what we're currently training them to do," Angle said. "They come pre-programmed with 30,000 years of searching techniques, and a lot of times we as humans get in the way of that. We think we understand what odor does, and how it operates for a dog, but a lot of things I've seen through the years show they have far greater capabilities than what we've used them for in the past."

Angle said he's seen dogs identify very small targets from very far distances. "I've seen them detect two ounces of explosives from more than 300 yards away," he said. "They can detect through barriers and masking agents. We see a lot of natural instincts in a dog's ability to detect innate behaviors like understanding and utilizing wind currents and scent plume."

"The dog's capability is far greater than what we're currently training them to do."
Craig Angle, co-director of Canine Performance Sciences at Auburn University

CPS researchers examine ways to utilize canine detection across different industries. "We study their capabilities for different targets, such as explosives," Angle said. "We're moving a lot into biological targets, especially in the medical field, learning if they can detect cancer."

The lab, founded in 1990, is currently researching dogs' ability to detect the odor of different viruses.

"With odor, we're studying something we can't see and is difficult to measure, especially the concentrations dogs can smell," Angle said. "They can smell thresholds that advanced chemical detection technologies can't measure." Dogs can detect odors in the parts-per-trillion range, but some experts believe they can smell even smaller quantities. "We're limited now in the science of understanding and measuring odor," Angle said.

We also haven't yet discovered how dogs can be fully used for mobile real-time detection, Angle said. "The public doesn't know, and there are hardly any research dollars out there," he said. Much of the research done by the lab, including the virus work, is funded by private individuals.

Back at the Connecticut State Police Forensic Laboratory, Hubball is working to identify the lowest detectable limit for the dogs. "We've gone down to very low part-per-million levels, and we're now going to be working on some higher part-per-billion levels of the TPPO," he said. So far, the dogs can detect even miniscule levels of the compound, he said.

The future of security

With seven of its dogs currently retrieving evidence in the field, the Connecticut State Police will likely run another training class of at least three dogs in 2017, Real said. Along with child exploitation work, the dogs are also being used in terrorism cases, the details of which are confidential. Connecticut has hosted canine trainers from the UK, and Australian officials have expressed interest in adopting the program as well.

Initially, the Connecticut trainers did not plan on releasing the chemical Hubbell isolated. But with interest from around the world, the department decided to hold a "train the trainer" program at the beginning of 2016 for the ICAC community, and inform the masses.

"I don't want to see someone using it long-term with inadequate training," Real said. "But the ultimate goal is to catch the bad guy. That's what this is about, and it's an awkward spot to tell another law enforcement agency, 'I'm not telling you what we did.' We figured it was time. People are going to do what they're going to do."

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The first full class of five ESD dogs graduate from the Connecticut State Police's program.

Image: Connecticut State Police

This is what enabled private companies like Jordan Detection K9 to begin training on it as well.

Another concern voiced by some law enforcement agents: If tech companies know the compound these dogs are tracking, they may try to make storage devices without it. But Hubbell said he doesn't foresee this happening widely.

"This is a very inexpensive industrial chemical, and it works very effectively, and I don't think we're going to have a major shift in the types of materials that are used to make the chips," Hubbell said. "I don't think it's quite possible to mask the odor in this scenario, because you've got these circuit boards in the devices."

While Connecticut's program currently only trains dogs for law enforcement, Real said he thinks doing so for corporations could be an option in the future. "They don't want to see things walking out the door that shouldn't be walking out the door," Real said. "If they felt there was an application in their situation, at least they will know that there's a chance of solving a problem they might have."

Hubbell sums up the feeling many officers and citizens experience upon watching the ESD dogs uncover evidence. "The perception of having something such as a dog—your pet—being capable of doing this kind of thing is amazing."

Credit for image at top: iStock/kurashov

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Alison DeNisco is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers CXO and the convergence of tech and the workplace.