Students on the Case

Undergraduate interns from Notre Dame are serving as sworn officers in the St. Joseph County Cyber Crimes Unit.

St. Joseph County prosecutor Ken Cotter swore in six Notre Dame students as investigators in the county's Cyber Crimes Unit.
St. Joseph County prosecutor Ken Cotter swore in six Notre Dame students as investigators in the county’s Cyber Crimes Unit.
University of Notre Dame

When I was in Israel two years ago, I met a group of Israeli high school students who participated in the Magshimim cybersecurity after-school training program. Those teenagers were so invested in helping to secure their nation’s computer infrastructure that I was both excited for their futures in the field and slightly concerned by how much responsibility they already felt they bore for their country’s cybersecurity.

I experienced those same dueling sentiments recently when I spoke with several of the six undergraduate student interns from the University of Notre Dame who serve as sworn officers of the St. Joseph County Cyber Crimes Unit, which is located on campus: How wonderful that young people are so engaged in doing real computer-related law enforcement work! And how strange—and even perhaps slightly scary—that we give college students police badges and send them out (in the company of fully trained officers) to execute search warrants and collect digital evidence for real law enforcement investigations.

Notre Dame is not the only university to partner with a local police department to provide students with hands-on digital-forensics experience, but it is the only such program that swears in its undergraduate interns as actual law enforcement officers, according to St. Joseph County Prosecuting Attorney Kenneth Cotter, who conducted the most recent swearing-in of six new interns on Sept. 7. The program is entering its third year and has expanded with the relocation of the Cyber Crimes Unit to the Notre Dame campus during the summer. Previously, the program was run from the county jail and admitted only three student interns.

“We’re really taking a chance by giving college students essentially full police powers,” Mitch Kajzer, the St. Joseph County cybercrimes director, said. But he emphasized that while the student interns are issued badges and help carry out warrants and criminal investigations, they are always closely supervised when they are out in the field. The students’ badges are kept in the Cyber Crimes Unit and are only used when they are out in the company of other, fully trained law enforcement officers. When students help execute search warrants, they wait until other officers have secured the site and then enter and help conduct the search for evidence.

As part of their internships, Notre Dame students scour social media accounts of people involved in investigations; run forensics programs on seized phones, tablets, and personal computers; help write search warrants for the collection of digital data; and aid in the execution of those warrants. For instance, new interns learn how to conduct research about suspects on the website Inteltechniques.com. For collecting evidence from digital devices, the interns are trained in the Magnet AXIOM forensics tool. They work on investigations that range from strictly digital incidents, such as online harassment and fraud cases, to a wide range of other crimes that involve digital evidence. For instance, in 2016 when the owner of a tanning salon was accused of recording videos of naked female customers during their spray tans, one of the Notre Dame interns was able to find the names of two unidentified victims by going through one of the salon’s business computers.

“They haven’t gone through the [police training] academy, and they also have to worry about their day job, being a student, so we wanted to be sure we weren’t giving them too much for them to be able to balance and that they were going to be properly vetted,” Cotter said.

Student applicants undergo an extensive application and interview process, Kajzer said, but the vetting focuses more on enthusiasm and critical thinking than technical skills and ability. In fact, several of the student interns come from nontechnical departments, such as economics, political science, and film, and learn the digital-forensics skills needed for their work on the job, rather than in the classroom. For instance, Carolyn Kammeyer, a junior majoring in political science who joined the program this fall, has only just begun taking coding classes in Python this year as part of her minor in computing and digital technologies. Another new intern, Julia Gately, a sophomore economics major in the same computing and digital technologies minor, took Advanced Placement Computer Science in high school but only just began college courses in digital forensics and programming in the fall when she joined the program. Brooke Sabey, a sophomore film major with a CDT minor, said she was initially interested in the program because of her experience running a YouTube channel in high school and her knowledge of social media platforms, a common source of information and evidence in the interns’ investigative work.

“The diversity of majors really helps,” said Mike Chapple, the academic director of Notre Dame’s Master of Science in Business Analytics program and faculty adviser to the Cyber Crimes Unit interns. “Usually the students have only taken one or two courses related to the work they’re doing, so we’re really looking for their passion and aptitude. The rest—the digital forensics and computer programs—that we can teach them.”

Of course, students can—and do—learn those skills without serving as sworn officers and going out into the field with police officers. But one thing that becomes clear from talking to the students themselves is how much that hands-on element of the internship experience means to them.

“The opportunity to be a sworn law enforcement officer at 19 years old is unlike any other,” Gately said. “It’s truly incredible. One of the things I’m most looking forward to is when we get to go with the officers to the actual scene to carry out search warrants. I’m really excited to be able to do that soon.”

Christina Casino, a senior economics major who has been part of the internship program since she was a sophomore, also said that was her favorite part of the program—getting to enter houses after they had been secured by other officers and actually search for and preview evidence.

“It’s a lot of responsibility and you don’t really realize that until you’re going on warrants and you’re able to write search warrants and get them signed yourself as a college student,” Casino said.

Cotter, Kajzer, and Chapple extol the program’s benefits for both students and the county investigators by providing students with greater responsibility and exposure to actual cybercrime investigations. But the real reason for giving students so much responsibility at such a young age, it seemed to me, was how much it meant to them—and how seriously they took it. All of the students I spoke with in the internship program expressed interest in working in cybersecurity in the future, whether in law enforcement or private industry, and it seemed that giving them real badges—and real responsibilities in active criminal investigations—was at least partly to thank for that interest.