Can you find a computer chip by smell? Sota can.
Sept. 17, 2020
Everyone knows dogs are good sniffers, and that their sense
of smell is far better than any human’s. They’ve been used in law enforcement
for over a century for search and rescue and other tracking, and more recently,
sniffing for drugs and explosives. And now, some dogs are being trained to
sniff for digital evidence.
It turns out that memory storage devices like USB drives and
micro SD cards are coated with triphenylphosphine oxide, or TPPO, which has a distinctive
smell that dogs can be trained to detect. Sota, a 2-year-old black British
Labrador, is the Bureau of Criminal
Apprehension’s new K-9 agent. She’s trained to recognize the smell of
TPPO to help her human colleagues find digital evidence.
Training dogs to sniff for digital evidence is a relatively
new practice. Two years ago, there were only three such K-9s in the U.S. Now,
Sota is one of about three dozen – but she’s the first and only digital
evidence detection K-9 in Minnesota. It’s not cheap to purchase and train a dog to
do this work. Fortunately, an organization called Operation Underground Railroad footed
the $15,000 bill on behalf of the BCA. Operation Underground Railroad is a
nonprofit dedicated to the permanent eradication of child sex trafficking.
Because of their generosity, the BCA only has to cover Sota’s food, kennel and
If you’re wondering what the connection is, consider this:
Criminals who exploit children often leave evidence on electronic storage
devices. The same goes for perpetrators of other predatory crimes, as well as
financial crimes and homicide. Because these devices are small and easy to
hide, human agents can’t always find them. So they sweep the crime scene first,
then send in Sota and her human partner to sniff out evidence they might have
missed. Sota’s partner is Special Agent Lucas Munkelwitz, who works in the
BCA’s predatory crimes section.
Sota started out her training as a service dog, but it
turned out that she was too energetic. She’s just right for sniffing digital
evidence, though: Since she came to the BCA in May, she has already been
deployed on 10 cases. She has located 21 pieces of potential electronic
evidence, including a meticulously hidden cell phone from a murder case.
Sota’s new “boss,” BCA Superintendent Drew Evans, is happy
to have her: “Adding her to our team will help the BCA further strengthen our
cases involving predatory criminals.” Sota will be using her amazing sniffer to
help lock up criminals and keep Minnesotans safe for years to come.