Cybersleuths try to mine clues from Newtown killer's damaged computer

 

Newtown, Connecticut

Some of the most important clues about what drove Adam Lanza to mass murder probably sit on the computer that the reclusive, technical-minded 20-year-old used as one of his main contacts with the world, law enforcement authorities said.

Lanza attempted to destroy his computer's hard drive, the device that stores and retrieves data, before setting out on the Dec. 14 killing spree in Newtown, Conn. Police have declined to provide information on the extent of the damage to the drive, but investigators remain hopeful that it can be repaired.

Specialists, however, said that any effort to recover data may be thwarted if the hard drive's magnetic platters are shattered. If the damage is less severe, or if there are multiple platters in the computer, investigators may be able to glean useful information. Such recovery efforts are slow and costly, specialists said.

The computer was seized at Lanza's home soon after he killed his mother and went on to slay 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School before committing suicide.

The computer was taken to the Connecticut State Police computer crimes unit, which has more than a dozen police and civilian technicians focused on gathering digital forensic evidence, according to Lt. J. Paul Vance, a state police spokesman.

Vance declined to provide details about the computer and its condition, but he said the technicians will add their findings to the mix of physical and electronic evidence, including DNA samples, bullet casings, cellphone records and gaming systems.

"We have to look at everything," he said. "It may direct us. It may open a door."

The computer crimes unit operates the Computer Crimes and Electronic Evidence Laboratory in Meriden, Conn., assisting in more than 400 criminal cases a year.

"Fully 70% of the cases directed to the Computer Crimes Laboratory involve some level of child exploitation/child pornography," the lab's website said.

The FBI has offered to help with the electronic forensics and may be examining the computer, law enforcement authorities said.

Although authorities know that Lanza was the shooter, police are pursuing the case as an active murder investigation until they understand what happened and why. At least three search warrants have been filed under seal in Superior Court in Danbury, Conn., according to Geoffrey Stowell, deputy chief clerk of the court. Two of them can be unsealed Dec. 28, and one can be unsealed Dec. 30, he said.

Lanza's computer and online activity will remain a key focus of the investigation.

"The level of detail they can rip out of systems these days seems incomprehensible to most people," said Rob Lee, a forensic specialist who has examined computers seized from terrorists for the U.S. intelligence community.

That includes such obvious things as websites visited and photographs downloaded. Other telling data include the geo-location of every place a laptop has been used, the timing of activity and other technical "artifacts" that computers now maintain as a matter of course. Even some deleted material can be retrieved with relative ease if the damage to the hard drive is not too severe, Lee said.

One method of fixing a damaged hard drive is called a "platter swap," which involves taking the magnetic platter from the damaged hard drive and putting it on an undamaged hard drive chassis of the same make.

Various reports have said that Lanza used a hammer or screwdriver on his hard drive. The issue in this case may be what can be done with a shattered platter. Platters can be made of aluminum, ceramics or glass. Repairing a broken platter generally requires piecing it together like a cracked plate. Careful alignment is required to preserve the data architecture.

Because the information recorded on new platters is densely packed, it can be almost impossible to reconstruct them with the necessary precision if they are shattered.

Still, extraordinary recoveries have occurred. When the space shuttle Columbia blew up, investigators were able to recover hard drives that had fallen to Earth. "The data was almost 100 percent recoverable," said Lee, the lead for digital forensic and incident response at the SANS Institute, a leading cybersecurity and training organization.

He said investigators would also be looking for contacts Lanza had with other people, possibly gamers. In high school, Lanza reportedly belonged to a technology club that had gaming events called LAN parties, in which players linked computers to compete.

"The computer is probably the only inner look at his psyche," Lee said. "Why Sandy Hook?"

Tim Ryan, a former FBI agent who supervised major cybercases, said it has been widely reported that Lanza was socially isolated in Newtown. But he said he would "not be surprised if he spent a large amount of time" socializing online or with other gamers.

One compelling question, Ryan said, is why Lanza took the relatively unusual step of trying to physically destroy his hard drive.

"What did he try to hide?" said Ryan, now a managing director at Kroll Advisory Solutions.

Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
News
A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
people
News
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
Sport
Colombia's James Rodriguez celebrates one of his goals during the FIFA World Cup 2014 round of 16 match between Colombia and Uruguay at the Estadio do Maracana in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
sportColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Life and Style
News to me: family events were recorded in the personal columns
techFamily events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped that
News
news
News
i100
News
people
Sport
Antoine Griezmann has started two of France’s four games so far
sport
Life and Style
techYahoo Japan launches service to delete your files and email your relatives when you die
Life and Style
Child's play: letting young people roam outdoors directly contradicts the current climate
lifeHow much independence should children have?
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book
booksFind out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sustainability Manager

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Scheme Manager (BREEAM)...

Graduate Sustainability Professional

Flexible, depending on experience: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: T...

Programme Director - Conduct Risk - London

£850 - £950 per day: Orgtel: Programme Director - Conduct Risk - Banking - £85...

Project Coordinator/Order Entry, SC Clear

£100 - £110 per day: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Hampshire

Day In a Page

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary