Can you find a computer chip by smell? Sota can.

Sept. 17, 2020

Sota the K-9

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 vehicle equipment.

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.