Discerning Details in the Data
Derek Ellington is a master of digital sleuthingBy Gordon Byrd
Tucked away in the town of Wake Forest, north of Raleigh, a sleuth extracts evidence of corporate fraud from a business executive’s laptop; or he uses GPS to re-create the scene of a crime; or he recovers the contents of a lost-loved-one’s cellphone to share their family photos, voice memos and digital legacy with those left behind.
“Data doesn’t lie. Most of what I do is explain how I retrieved the data and what the context of the data is.”
Derek Ellington does it all in his home office. A certified fraud examiner, private investigator, and self-proclaimed “cyber ninja,” Derek, a member of Wake Electric, has taken the stand as an expert witness countless times. Family law frequently calls upon his services to untangle a soap opera-like drama involving intrigue and infidelity. Corporate lawyers have him on speed dial to investigate allegations of white-collar crimes.
His CSI-style work provides a lot of interesting cases. Much like the forensics in the TV show “Law & Order,” Derek presents his findings in often high-profile criminal cases.
“Data doesn’t lie,” Derek says. “Most of what I do is explain how I retrieved the data and what the context of the data is.”
Context is key
Context is very important with data. Derek tells of some embarrassing photos of a father being touted by the opposing attorney as “indecent.” The photos were retrieved from the man’s laptop and seemed to suggest he was unfit to have custody of his children.
“We found these photos,” Derek says with a sly grin on his face, “because the man’s attorney wanted to figure out what the fuss was about.”
The photos were not entirely embarrassing, but they were puzzling. The man had taken a photo of himself standing, facing the camera. The next photo was a profile. Both photographs were taken within a minute and they were never sent or copied. Derek found that these photos were taken at 9:02 p.m. on January 3, 2012.
“That is when it clicked. These were his ‘before’ photos taken just after the season premiere of [the personal fitness TV show] ‘The Biggest Loser,’ season 13.”
Embarrassing, but not incriminating.
“Understanding the context of the data is the real important thing,” Derek explains. “Knowing how the data got there and why it is there is just as important as the data itself.”
Personal digital legacy
Although criminal investigations are interesting, Derek speaks most passionately about the beautiful humanity that can be saved in someone’s digital legacy. But he has noticed a shift in how society views the privacy and permanency of data.
“As our personal media becomes digital, people have less of an appreciation for saving their media. When you have the fast-paced Twitter and Facebook feeds, you lose the idea that you should save those photos, those moments.”
A person’s digital legacy is like the physical photo albums, diaries, newspaper clippings, and recipe books we used to hand down — generation to generation — as heirlooms. Derek makes a point to bring up true stories of grieving families being able to hear a dearly-deceased laugh again on a voice memo or short video. So much more than a dusty photo album, a digital legacy will not fade if stored properly.
The smartphone has become the most important thing for helping loved ones recover many sentimental and practical information.
“If I can get into your phone, I can access your banking information, emails, light bills and passwords for all manner of important information,” Derek explains.
“The last thing family members want when a loved one dies unexpectedly is to have to figure out passcodes and worry about lost photos and information,” Derek continues. “Sharing your passwords and planning your digital estate as well as your physical estate, are considerate and helpful steps to take.”
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