Announcing the Latest Magnet Forensics Community Award Winner: Austin Berrier

Whether it’s through their work on a case, their unrelenting commitment to the pursuit of justice, or their contribution to digital forensics as a whole, the Magnet Forensics Community Award is our way of recognizing people in the digital forensics field who are bringing excellence and integrity to the community.

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And the Award Goes to… Austin Berrier!

When talking about selecting Austin for the award, Jad Saliba, Founder and CTO of Magnet Forensics says: “It was easy to select Austin for the award. His amazing attitude, resourcefulness, and dedication to prevent child exploitation is ceaseless and we at Magnet Forensics are honored to help him in his role as a Homeland Security Investigations Agent with the U.S. Government.”

We caught up with Austin and asked him a few questions about his role and his thoughts around the award — read the Q&A below:

What does it mean to you to be recognized for this award?

I would like to thank Jad and the Magnet team for this honor. Every day, law enforcement around the world investigates child sexual exploitation and safeguards children and each of those professionals is deserving of this award. Unfortunately, the average person has no concept of the reality of the sexual exploitation of children, and awards like this help to shine light on the issue and help to keep law enforcement focused and motivated. 

Personally, I can think of dozens of good cops that are more deserving, but I am grateful. We often don’t have the opportunity to meet the children we save and experience that closure, but this award does serve to remind me why we all do this work, for the children of our communities.

Tell us a bit about your background in law enforcement

I have been an HSI Agent since 2003, working child exploitation since 2011. Prior to working for the U.S. Government, I spent 5 years in municipal policing in Virginia and 4 years in the Marines. 

I have been lucky to have worked a little bit of everything; from maritime smuggling and organized crime in Los Angeles to gang investigations in Phoenix. However, in over 20 years of law enforcement, working child exploitation has been the most rewarding. To say I “enjoy” it is not accurate, but the sense of satisfaction and relief that comes with each successful investigation is fantastic as it means that a child has been rescued or a predator was stopped.

Can you tell us about some of the challenges you face in your role and how you keep up with the rapidly evolving digital forensics field? 

Currently my biggest problem is the management and analysis of large quantities of data. I find that I spend an excessive amount of time combing through evidence trying to link suspects across various platforms, accounts and days of activity. Having a solution that allows for analysis beyond merely finding overt evidentiary files is crucial. Some of the trends we are seeing with live-streaming abuse or the streaming of existing material have revealed that savvy offenders are “consuming” abuse material without possessing it in a traditional sense. This is where online activity analysis has been crucial in successful investigations and prosecutions. 

Another big challenge for not just me, but lots of investigators in this field is that we’re not “computer guys.”  Many of us began our careers in law enforcement in a non-cyber environment and now find ourselves in a highly technical field where we learn as we go and lean on each other. Some forensics products require a high skill set not only to use but to merely analyze the results. Finding forensics software that not only can be utilized by law enforcement of different levels of expertise but is also able to be presented to a judge or jury is critical.

Have there been any particular cases that have posed a significant challenge?

In a recent large investigation, we struggled with extracting certain types of evidentiary data as there weren’t any products on the market that dealt with this particular platform. We had developed some in-house procedures that were adequate but cumbersome. It was at that time that some amazing professionals with the Toronto Police Service put me in touch with Jad Saliba. Jad and his team took our in-house work and expanded on it, adding new functionality to their product which has led to some significant arrest numbers. This new functionality has allowed us to charge and convict offenders that previously would most likely never had been charged. This particular investigation has taught me that we are usually far behind the offenders and once we learn of a platform the offenders are well established on it. Don’t be afraid to reach out to our partners in private industry, academia or NGOs for assistance as they may hold the solution to your problem.

Austin’s Donation of Choice

In addition to showcasing the work that they do, the Magnet Forensics Community Award is also an opportunity to help a cause that is near to them — with the award comes a financial donation to the recipients’ charity of choice. Austin tells us about his charity of choice and why it’s so close to him:

“I would like to see the donation go to the ALS Association, which is involved in research and advocacy for ALS, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. 

ALS has a high mortality rate with nearly all those afflicted succumbing within 5 years. My father was diagnosed and battled ALS for nearly 20 years before passing away in September of 2016. In spite of the debilitating nature of the illness, my father never lost his sense of humor or his indomitable spirit. He is the biggest reason I became a cop, always telling me as I grew up, “Son, make sure when you die you have left the world a better place than when you got here.” Sentimental? Sure, but I can’t think of a better way to describe why we do what we do.”