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Computer Forensics

Talk about a new kind of detective work: Computer Forensics International hits the hard drive instead of the mean streets. President Mark McLaughlin chats about evidence, expertise, and the fun of sleuthing.

Every era has its private detective heroes, from Sherlock Holmes to Mike Hammer. Now, in the Information Age, investigation has taken a decidedly technological twist. Los Angeles-based Computer Forensics International hits the hard drive instead of the mean streets. President Mark McLaughlin chats about evidence, expertise, and the fun of sleuthing.

What got you personally interested in doing this work?

I’ve always had an inquisitive mind, especially if someone is trying to hide something. But I actually just fell into this business. In 1996, I received a call from a retired LAPD commander who was now working for a large private investigation firm. He had a case involving a computer and asked me to help. I did and it was a big success. Then came more cases and my computer forensics examination career was born.

How did the company get started?

I had worked for two of the nation’s largest and most respected private investigation firms. Although I had been there for nearly four years, I believed they just didn’t understand the value of what a computer forensic examination could bring to an investigation.

Somewhat frustrated, I left the private investigation business and returned to contract IT management jobs. However, I continued to work on cases from time to time. But the turning point was when I received my fist expert witness court qualification, which immediately put me into a very select group of examiners. I decided then to give it a serious effort and never looked back since.

Why do you feel there’s a need for what you provide?

Everybody knows computers have become a major part of our culture. A recent UC-Berkeley study found that 93 percent of all the world’s information is in digital form and e-mail is now viewed as a conversational tool. However, this proliferation of digital information hasn’t come without its problems and individuals who want to use it to their advantage. We focus solely on recovering computer evidence for attorneys managing lawsuits and corporations conducting internal employee investigations. Our work can bring a swift resolution to a case. It’s tough to refute a “smoking gun” or crucial evidence that helps win the case.

What kind of challenges do you find in doing computer forensics?

Technology changes swiftly and it’s incumbent on us to stay abreast of changes. I’d consider my staff to be an “all star team” of examiners, all technically proficient with investigative law enforcement backgrounds. But our biggest challenge is helping potential clients understand what computer forensics examinations are, and what they can do for them.

Do you find that companies are becoming more aware of technical issues, like knowing that documents aren’t really deleted just by being put in the trash?

There’s an awareness that nothing on a computer is actually deleted until it’s overwritten. If you’re trying to hide something, that’s a problem. We’ve worked hard at getting the work out, but the market for our services is huge. I believe it’s just a lack of client knowledge that’s kept this industry from explosive growth. But hang on, it’s coming!

What do you like best about what you do?

It’s fun to sleuth around a hard drive and come up with evidence our clients can use. But since it’s my firm, I can now select the cases we want to work on and it’s very important to me to be on the right side of a case.

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