Forensics class trains for future

By Jordan Buie

The room is C-13. A keycard lock on the door offers admittance to only authorized personnel, and once inside, cell phone service goes out like a light. Young programmers are huddled over salvaged hardware, looking for crucial details, any clues embedded deep in the mess that might save a kidnapped victim.

This is not a scene from one of the Crime Scene Investigation shows prevalent on television, rather a scene that occurred last semester in the Penick Academic Complex when a group of computer science students and CSI fans gathered for a class called Information Assurance and Security, an upper-level computer science class.

Dr. G. Jan Wilms, professor of computer science and department chair, said he decided to start the IAS class as a result of the high demand for information assurance. The interest has developed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and from the growing fears of cyber-warfare.

“After the terrorist attacks of 9/11 our government began to worry about the country’s vulnerability in the area of information technology,” Wilms said. “The military and government are looking for people trained with these abilities. To start the class, I was looking for the curricula and tools that are now being developed.”

Timeliness and funding opportunities were motivating factors in Wilms decision to start such a class, but the growing interest in computer forensics from portrayals in the media, as well as a growth in what Wilms called “white-collar crime” — which consists of hackers using the Web to steal information and break into networks — also played a major role in the class.

Wilms said with all the opportunities available through computers, more opportunities for crime also exist. The IAS class is designed to train students in combat of the electronic crime now developing, Wilms said.

Another term Wilms gives to this type of work is “white hacking,” which is when people with the same abilities as hackers are paid by companies to probe its defenses to make sure they are secure.

Wilms teaches the process of securing hardware, or “hardening,” through a variety of methods that allow students to work as a hacker for the purpose of either gaining information from a simulated crime scene or making sure a network’s defenses are up.

However, Wilms said a large portion of the class is dedicated to computer ethics.

“I urge students to never use their knowledge for attack purposes,” Wilms said. “It’s a shame some of the people who do illegal hacking have misdirected their talents.”

Travis Sims, junior computer science major, described this process as both fun and challenging. Sims said he was drawn to the class because of his love of computer science, as well as forensics. However, Sims never thought he would be working with non-majors.

“Everybody in the class watched CSI shows,” Sims said. “There were students from all different majors, even some from nursing, but that was O.K. because although the class was difficult, it was designed so anyone could take it, even a novice.”

Sims said he and the other students were trained how to check a crime scene for evidence and look for information — primarily through  hardware — about the victim and perpetrators.

Wilms developed a unique process to train through simulation. Students were given damaged hardware and told to recover files, e-mails or any clues that might lead to answers about the case they were working on.

Sims said the class even had a unique incorporation of faith and learning.

“At one point, Dr. Wilms went into a system and hid Bible verses behind password-protected security or in a damaged file, and sometimes we would have to recover deleted information such as photos,” Sims said. “At one point in the semester, Dr. Wilms created a kidnapping case, and we rummaged through the remains of a simulated salvaged hard drive, recovering files and searching through e-mails that had been sent, all in search of clues.”

Sims said Wilms’ unique  instruction pushed him and his fellow students to work hard. He said it was fun to solve the mysteries they were presented, and interesting because the students were able to work with advanced white-hacking software called “Encase,” used by the FBI.

Overall, Wilms said the class was a success.

“The first class was a test bed to see how things would go,” Wilms said.

Wilms said the class will be offered again in the future. For  information, contact the Computer Science Department via the Union website.

About Cardinal & Cream 1009 Articles
The Cardinal & Cream is a student publication of Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. Our staff ranges from freshmen to seniors and includes a variety of majors — including journalism, public relations, advertising, marketing, digital media studies, graphic design and art majors.