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Monday, November 4, 2013

GPS Forensics

As reported by the Sun SentinelPaul Alber can see places that most cops can't — into the past, for example.
The town of Palm Beach officer isn't a psychic, although some bad guys might swear he is. After all, he figures out where they went and how they got there.
Alber, 45, is a pioneer in a fledgling field of investigation called GPS forensics. He can extract information from GPS devices — Global Positioning Systems — and use those specific locations to punch holes in even the most extravagant cover stories.
"It's satisfying to know you've caught them in a lie," Alber says.
A former fish and wildlife officer and seven-year veteran of the Palm Beach squad, Alber said his skills are mostly self-taught. In the mid-90s, when the tracking devices first started becoming popular, he toyed with them to mark fishing and diving spots he'd visited for fun. It got him thinking.
"I noticed a lot of the data you could get out of the GPS could be really useful for law enforcement work," said Alber, who is married and has two children in their teens. "And I kind of built on it from that."
Because it can be priceless in prosecuting cases, Alber won't share details of exactly what he can dig out of the GPS units. Also off-limits is just how he pulls out information.
But investigations into crimes ranging from illegal fishing to human smuggling to boat crashes have relied on his abilities to pry electronic details from navigation devices. Although he also can track land vehicles, the majority of his work involves boats and water, mainly because he works around so much water.
Among those that have tapped into Alber's expertise: Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and the Drug Enforcement Administration, as well as state agencies in Arizona and Tennessee.
He's made some big scores using GPS devices to peer into the past.
In 2010, federal agents reached out to Alber after they stopped a suspicious fishing boat 25 miles off the coast of Boynton Beach. They found 33 people packed inside the 40-foot vessel.
A woman who claimed to be a U.S. citizen named Sandra Anderson, the boat's owner, told agents she was coming back from the Bahamas when she spotted a sinking ship, according to court documents.
She explained that she rescued 31 people from the foundering ship and helped them onto her boat.
But Alber took a look inside the boat's GPS and traced the path it had taken, starting in Bimini and heading north, then veering west toward the U.S.
"That kind of put the final nails in the coffin," Alber said.
Anderson turned out to be a Bahamian woman named Judith Moody who had seven aliases. She and the boat captain, Jesus Saavedra, had promised the 31 migrants — seven of whom had previously been deported from the U.S. — entry to the country for $5,000 a head. The two pleaded guilty to smuggling and were given prison sentences — eight-and-a-half years for Moody and three for Saavedra.
Alber took home an award from the U.S. Attorney for that bit of work, and he said he's proud of it because it took potentially dangerous people out of the country.
"They were coming here with a lot of potential to do harm and so to stop that, that's what the job's about," Alber said.
He does his navigational sluething outside regular patrol work for the police department, occasionally with compensation from whichever agency requests his help. His wife of 20 years, Pam Alber, said she's all for his kind of moonlighting.
"I think it's great," she said. "It's something he enjoys doing."
And she doesn't worry about being on the receiving end of his sleuthing: "Neither of us are doing anything we have to worry about."
Alber's boss is on board, too.
"When I get called for him to give his expertise on GPS, I get excited for him," said his supervisor, Capt. Gino Silvestri. "He's very good at it."
Alber was good at it almost from the start. In 2001, he was working a case where a boat plowed into a small fishing boat, leaving a child with major head injuries. Alber and other divers searching for evidence kept coming up empty-handed, so he took a look at the fishing boat's GPS.
When a diver went under again at a spot Alber pinpointed, he practically landed on top of a fishing pole on the ocean floor.
Now, he teaches his skills to other officers through a new class hosted by the organization that trains and accredits marine law enforcement agencies.
There seems to be no shortage of need for those skills. Anytime the journey matters, Alber is likely to get a call.