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UNDERCOVER: James Heatherly of S2 Consultant uses emerging technology to extract data from phones, tablets and GPS systems.
SBJ photo by Wes Hamilton
UNDERCOVER: James Heatherly of S2 Consultant uses emerging technology to extract data from phones, tablets and GPS systems.

Business Spotlight: Data Detectives

S2 Consultant uses the same equipment as the Justice Department and FBI to extract digital data from devices

Posted online

James Heatherly says the industry he works in is not as enticing as the movies make it out to be. He’s the owner of S2 Consultant LLC, which offers services in investigations and digital forensics.

Heatherly is the company’s sole licensed investigator, and while the job occasionally requires some undercover disguises, he says there are no trench cloaks or spyglasses involved.

Starts with one
Heatherly got his start in investigations as a researcher at a law firm. The role eventually led him to develop and open an entire investigative department within the office.

“That’s a one-client environment,” Heatherly says. “My job was to make my employer happy.”

He soon figured out, however, the attorney he worked for was going to retire, and he began to consider the idea of taking on multiple clients of his own.

“Since I got my start working solely for the litigation community, I understood the need for a highly professional investigator when working for attorneys,” he says.

Heatherly quickly earned a license to operate his own investigative business, and soon after, S2 Consultant – named after the intelligence arm of the U.S. military – was  born in 2013.

“We’ve been growing ever since we opened,” Heatherly says, declining to disclose last year’s revenue. “Over the next five years, we’d like to see ourselves move into a larger facility.”

A trick to the growth is the fact much of the work has to stay on the down-low.

“When someone needs our services, they don’t normally want that need to become common knowledge, which made for a very slow start as we went from a one-client model to a business trying to earn the trust of new clients,” Heatherly says.

Today, S2 has enough work to start looking for extra help. With six employees, the company is considering bringing on a second licensed investigator.

“Some of our services, by law, require a licensed investigator, so it would be nice as my plate continues to fill up,” Heatherly says. “I’m just really picky.”

Digging for details
S2 Consultant mostly works with law firms, insurance companies, and small and midsize private businesses. The names of clients are held close to the vest.

With hourly rates ranging between $25 and $300, the firm offers a long list of diverse services: surveillance, photography, social media monitoring, secure IT solutions, fraud investigations, witness protection, skip tracing and more.

But it’s the digital forensics side of the business that represents the bulk of work and revenue, Heatherly says. The back half of the office is an evidence and digital forensics lab.

“It could almost be a freestanding company,” Heatherly says. “There’s nothing in our lives now that isn’t touched by digital.”

The lab is a one-stop shop for evidence handling, secured storage and analyzing mobile devices. All text messages, pictures or other data on a smartphone, for instance, must go through a digital forensics process before it can be used as evidence in court, Heatherly says. The origin of a message, as well as how it was transmitted, are facts that may need to be determined, Heatherly says.

“Sometimes it’s validating that it hasn’t been manipulated,” he says. “Sometimes it’s validating how it was created.”

Determining that validity is done with the help of technology, he says.

Cellebrite is a company that creates machines the U.S. Department of Justice, FBI and the Springfield Police Department might use to retrieve data from phones, Heatherly says. Heatherly and his team often call on the Cellebrite UFED Touch, which can trace the origins of a picture or text message, for example, back to its creator. It’s also capable of extracting data from devices such as tablets and GPS systems.

With such equipment, the S2 team acts as a gatekeeper that prevents illegitimate evidence from being used.

“Something we see all the time is people will download apps that will allow them to create fake text message conversations,” Heatherly says. “We would prove it was created by an application.”

The UFED Touch also allows S2 a wider range of clientele – but it comes at a cost. SC Magazine, which publishes news on cybersecurity, cybercrime and security product reviews, lists Cellebrite UFED Touch products starting at $9,000.

“It’s just crazy expensive,” Heatherly says, declining to disclose his investment for the equipment. “So nobody owns them, which is why we turn around and provide the wholesale service to other investigators.”

Cody Brewington is a member and training coordinator for the Missouri State Investigators Association Executive Board. He says preparing future investigators and law enforcement members with the ever-changing world of tech is a big deal.

“Right now, the big thing is drones,” says Brewington, who has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in criminology from Missouri State University and works at the school as a noncredit program coordinator. “Investigators, both private and in law enforcement, are able to use drones to do casework which they may not have been able to do without.”

Of course, Brewington doesn’t prepare trainees how to physically use drones. Instead, he teaches how to use them legally and with accountability.

“There are things you can and can’t do with those,” he says.

As for new technologies, Heatherly says advances have both positive and negative implications on the investigative industry.

“As society and the courts start to nail down the standards that we as a nation, and really as a globe, want to hold this type of evidence to, then there won’t be as much resistance,” Heatherly says.

“It will become as normal as a set of fingerprints.”

The flip side is there always will be new technologies at play.

“Some of the techniques for manual surveillance haven’t changed in a hundred years,” Heatherly adds. “Some of the techniques for extracting digital evidence can change in a hundred hours.”


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