This January, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection intercepted a tractor-trailer that appeared to be transporting Mexican produce into Arizona. But it turned out the truck was carrying much more—250-plus pounds of the addictive opioid fentanyl, a painkiller that has been linked to the deaths of Prince, Tom Petty and thousands of Americans.

It was the largest fentanyl bust the agency had directed, amounting to a street value of around $3.5 million. The truck also contained a stash of nearly 395 pounds of methamphetamine, adding over a million dollars more to the value of the drug bust.[1]

This was no isolated case. The nation’s opioid crisis has demanded law-enforcement attention in recent times more than ever. Deaths from drug overdoses have risen significantly in the past 10 years,[2] with opioids gaining national attention as “hot spots” of the opioid epidemic continue to emerge across the country.[3] Narcotics overdoses have killed nearly four times as many people in the U.S. than murder and non-negligent manslaughter, according to the National Institutes of Health.[4]

The carnage is so severe that it is incumbent upon investigators to do everything in their power to track down the sources to stop drug deals and prevent future overdose deaths. Often, the answers lie within a cell phone or other mobile device recovered at the scene—as was the case in Orlando, Fla., where law enforcement officials were able to track a 2017 fentanyl overdose case back to the drug dealer where the drug was obtained, leading to a conviction for first-degree manslaughter. The drug dealer is now serving a life sentence.[5]

Too much data, too little time

Seizing a cell phone from a scene like the one in Arizona sets in motion what ultimately must be a high-speed, tightly choreographed investigation. The clock starts ticking immediately; if investigations don’t have solid leads, suspects or arrests within 48 hours, the chances of solving a case drop by half.

With the advent of digital forensics, it is now possible to extract terabytes of data from a single cell phone, tablet or other device used by victims, witnesses and others involved. Buried within that mountain of data are clues that could hold the key to solving the most complex narcotics cases, like a drug dealer’s location, text messages that may reveal future deals in the making, and images or videos that might help law-enforcement officials identify other people of interest.

Extracting evidence from a device is just the first step in the investigative process. The real challenge is then to sort through and make use of a tremendous—and growing—amount of data from multiple devices seized during a drug bust, without losing time. Mobile devices are getting more complex by the day, with people using not just text messaging but chat applications such as Kik and Snapchat to communicate. The inability to extract data from encrypted apps, as well as the sheer amount of data that must be extracted, have been identified as two of the top three digital forensics challenges for investigators.[6]

The problem is clear: more data is available now than ever before, but operationally, investigating teams often struggle with accessing and analyzing the daunting volumes of it.

Automation speeds up investigations

Traditionally, sorting through data obtained from mobile devices at a crime scene has been a largely manual and time-intensive process. If information can’t be identified quickly, teams have to move on, leaving critical evidence undiscovered.

The process hasn’t just been slow, but inefficient. The data extracted from mobile devices is usually processed in a siloed, static way, without being able to combine insights for a high-level view. That’s important when, for example, investigators need to piece together clues from a drug dealer’s social media posts or external sources along with data stored on a phone.

Given the tremendous volume of data that comes from such varied sources and formats on today’s complicated mobile devices, the manual way of conducting data analysis is becoming increasingly difficult. Investigators are grappling with two important questions: how can we weed through irrelevant details to put our hands on exactly the right information we need to solve a case? And how can we find it quickly, to help prevent the next drug trafficking incident or overdose before it occurs?

Cultivating more of the right leads in less time requires more than manpower—it demands strong computing power. Automation has captured national attention for its potential impact on business and its ability to produce innovations like driverless cars, but there’s a significant opportunity to apply it to solve narcotics cases and other crimes more rapidly.

For example, an automated system can use facial recognition and rapid categorization to sort through and organize thousands of images stored on a phone much faster than a human ever could, enabling investigators to identify everyone who came into contact with a narcotics dealer. Likewise, computers can make the data extracted from a phone more searchable by converting images to text and applying natural language algorithms to rapidly sort through call records, emails, websites and text messages to pull out key information. For example, in one case investigators were able to track a drug dealer’s web of connections through text messages found on an overdose victim’s phone, which led to a search warrant that enabled them to access the phone of the last person who saw the victim alive.[7]

Another potential use of automation is in piecing together insights extracted from a phone’s geolocation data. When a cell phone is recovered, the geolocation data it contains can provide a wealth of information about drug ring members’ whereabouts, routines and meeting spots. But what’s the best way to make sense of all that data? With the help of digital analytics, investigators can quickly visualize the scope of a case, with maps and timelines based on suspects’ locations and communications flows—even combining this map data with outside information to identify patterns across suspects, events or other cases.

Essentially, an automated data analysis process can simplify, streamline and expedite the manual processes that otherwise might slow an investigation down.

Make digital analytics work for you

Advanced analytics engines are a powerful new tool in the fight against narcotics trafficking and related crimes. Today’s technology enables investigators to:

  • Glean insights that weren’t accessible before—The newest systems can classify unknown images that previously could not be tagged and sorted, so they may have been left out of investigations altogether. Technology also can help investigators visualize data from multiple angles and rapidly combine disparate facts to uncover hidden patterns and connections.
  • Collaborate in new ways—Systems that house all data on a centralized web platform can enable forensic specialists, detectives, investigators, analysts, agency management, attorneys and outside experts to work together on a case or analyze information across multiple cases simultaneously—using data from multiple sources, including mobile devices, the cloud, computers and telecommunications records. Team members can immediately review all relevant data, which is protected by role-based workflows and case-level permissions to break down operational barriers and get the right information to the right users to crack a case.
  • Ensure accuracy in investigations—Nothing is more important to law-enforcement officials than identifying the right suspects. The ability to review massive amounts of ingestible data—CCTV footage, text messages, social media posts, digital images—in a more efficient manner means investigators make fewer mistakes in arrests, leaving innocent people on the streets and actual perpetrators in handcuffs.
  • Conserve agency resources and spare teams the psychological stress of sorting through sensitive information—Centralized digital forensics libraries can automatically decode, index and store current and historic data from multiple sources. By working with current data storage capabilities and policies, virtual libraries can allow users to explore data from all case files to find the information that’s needed, when it’s needed.

Ultimately, partnering with companies like Cellebrite can help law-enforcement agencies analyze data more efficiently and help our country solve narcotics cases like the large drug bust in Arizona much more quickly. And that means fewer lives lost to opioid overdoses in the future.

“We want to use digital clues to try to build our case,” said Ed Michael, digital forensics examiner at the Orlando Police Department. “If I didn’t have analytics, I don’t think I would have gotten results. It was very difficult to even form how to pull all this data together and how to search across it… [but with analytics] it took, on average, maybe 10 to 15 minutes to load the data and view the results.”[8]

[1] Cellebrite white paper: “Battling the Narcotics Crisis with Analytics Prescription”



[4] National Institutes of Health

[5] Orlando Sentinel

[6] Cellebrite Industry Trend Survey, 2018

[7] “Opioid Crisis in America: From Digital Clues to a Murder Conviction” webinar,

[8] “Opioid Crisis in America: From Digital Clues to a Murder Conviction” webinar,

About the Author:

FBI NA #168

Louis F. Quijas is a former law enforcement professional who has served at both the federal and local levels. His storied career includes appointments by the FBI Director to oversee the Office of Law Enforcement, and by the President of the United States, as the Assistant Secretary for the Office for State and Local Law Enforcement at the Department of Homeland Security. Lou has also served on several national boards - most notably, as President of the National Latino Peace Officers Association, and a member of the Executive Committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.



Supervisory Special Agent Savine serves as chief of the Physical Training Unit at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia.
Supervisory Special Agent Savine serves as chief of the Physical Training Unit at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia.
Supervisory Special Agent Savine serves as chief of the Physical Training Unit at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia.