The FBI’s top cyber-sleuths are wading deeper into the mystery of what happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, amid rising pressure – and even hunger strike threats – from distraught family members of the 239 missing passengers and crew.
The flight suddenly disappeared 12 days ago, on March 8, en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur, on a course over the Gulf of Thailand.
After a pilot said, “All right, good night,” the Boeing 777-200’s communications equipment was suddenly disabled and radar suggested the craft gained, then lost altitude. Malaysian investigators believe someone with aviation experience on the plane carried out a remarkable course diversion, essentially a U-turn, that began before the pilot’s sign-off. That has put the focus on Capt. Zaharie Ahmad Shah and his junior officer, Fariq Abdul Hamid.
“One of the pilots clearly had the intention … that he was going to take [the plane] in a different direction,” former FAA spokesman Scott Brenner said on Fox News Tuesday night. “It’s 100 percent clear this pilot, or this co-pilot, was going to take this plane with the intent of doing something bad.”
Angering some US lawmakers, authorities in Malaysia largely have kept the Federal Bureau of Investigation at arm’s length, though a small FBI team dispatched to Kuala Lumpur has been wading through reports from the investigation.
The Pentagon is also scouring satellite data for any clues about the missing plane, and the FBI used sophisticated “link-assist” technology that matches names on the manifest to databases in an effort to determine if there may have been foul play tied to a passenger; no such evidence has yet been found.
But the realization by local investigators that one of the pilots – Mr. Zaharie – had potentially erased some files from a home-built flight simulator a month before the plane’s disappearance led the authorities Wednesday to reach out directly to the FBI, which runs 16 Regional Computer Forensics Laboratories across the US.
“The experts are looking at what are the logs, what has been cleared,” Tan Sri Khalid Bin Abu Bakar, a Malaysian police official, told reporters at a Wednesday press conference.
Malaysian authorities have also been careful to note that the computer investigation is exploratory, and that all crew and passengers should be presumed innocent “until proven otherwise,” Hishammuddin Hussein, the Malaysian transportation minister, told reporters.
The FBI’s regional digital forensics laboratories have played a critical role in thousands of child porn, murder, and terrorism cases since the first such lab was created in San Diego in 1999. The centers are the preeminent digital detective workshops in the world, and utilize both FBI personnel and local law enforcement to conduct a wide range of investigations ranging from file recovery to behavioral analysis.
According to cyber-forensics experts in the US, the FBI employs widely recognized forensic “super heroes” who use deep-scan tools to unlock entire personal profiles out of digital fingerprints ranging from mouse clicks to Internet searches. Those “elite of the elites” are likely to be tapped to inspect the Malaysia Airlines flight simulator, experts say.
“A lot of what we do as examiners is try to refute or confirm a claim, and that may include in this case looking at the flight simulator, e-mail, search histories, in an attempt to draw a nexus between what’s likely an old-fashioned police investigation and what’s on the computer,” says Jonathan Rajewski, director of the Leahy Center for Digital Investigation, at Champlain College in Burlington, Vt.
“If there is a worst-case scenario, that this pilot was involved in some ring,” he says, “it’s possible for the FBI to find one little trace of an e-mail address that … can unveil a whole plethora of information about conspiracies and terror watch lists. There’s so much potential evidence on this computer.”
Malaysian authorities have cast a wide net and have sought help from dozens countries as they try to locate the plane, amid rampant speculation about whether it crashed or was hijacked. So far, the plane’s location has come down to hunches and educated guesses.
Distraught family members invaded a press conference in the southern Malaysia town of Sepang on Wednesday, having to be forcibly removed by police. Some of the family members have threatened hunger strikes if they’re not given more information about what may have happened to their loved ones.
“The Malaysian government hasn’t told us anything,” a middle-aged Chinese man who introduced himself as Mr. Xu told The New York Times.
Mr. Rajewski, for one, believes the FBI will be able to conclude at least the extent to which Zaharie was or was not involved in a plot to divert the plane.
“They should be able to tell relatively quickly what was going on” with the deleted files, adding that there’s “high probability … [that the FBI investigation will unlock] what really happened” to the flight simulator files and, potentially, to Flight 370.