One of the newest members of the FBI has a decidedly low-tech method of sniffing out digital evidence: she uses her nose.
Iris, an 18-month-old Labrador retriever, is the FBI's first electronic-detection K-9 and can sniff out just about any electronic device that stores memory —regardless of how well a criminal has hidden it.
Iris graduated from a program pioneered by the Connecticut State Police last month and is one of just a handful of dogs trained to detect a chemical used to cool memory chips on electronics.
"She went into four weeks of imprinting class with them, where they basically just had her every day and imprinted her on the scent," said her handler, FBI Agent Jeffrey Calandra. "That chemical is unique to thumb drives, hard drives, really anything that’s electronic that can store memory."
Now, just about anytime she's brought to a scene to sniff out the chemical, she alerts her handler in a way similar to bomb and drug dogs.
"She’s a passive alert dog so when she finds the device she’ll sit and then she’s fed," said Calanda.
After there is enough probable cause for the FBI to obtain a search warrant, Iris is used to search specific locations for electronic devices. Iris’ unique cyber-sniffing ability can be used in a wide range of investigations, including counter intelligence, counter terrorism and child pornography.
"We encounter subjects of our investigations who are very clever and they will do their best to hide electronic devices in the most unique places," said Michael Brodack, assistant special agent in charge of the Newark FBI office.
Some subjects will store incriminating evidence and thumb drives in places that may not even be thought of as electronic devices.
"You can find thumb drives in earrings, cuff links, pens, you name it," said FBI Supervisory Special Agent Philip Frigm. "They are very small and are getting smaller so it’s very difficult for a human who is in the process of conducting a search warrant to find some of those devices."
Other agencies have used dogs trained to detect the chemical successfully. Most notably, a black Lab named Bear sniffed out a hidden thumb drive containing child porn belonging to former Subway spokesman Jared Fogle.
Broadack said "the sky is the limit" with Iris.
"It will make our jobs a little bit easier and it’ll ensure that we find all of the pieces of evidence that we need to find," he said.
When the work day is over, Iris is just a regular dog living with her FBI handler and his family.
"She loves to play, she has a great personality but when it’s time to work, she loves to work — she gets fed when she works," said Calandra.
The Newark FBI will make Iris available to other FBI offices and law enforcement agencies to assist in cases where electronic devices are used and may go unseen without her skills.
"Electronics are a part of everyone’s daily lives and they are everywhere,” said Frigm. "Expectations are that she is going to be very busy in the near future."