UI shaping curriculum to train digital sleuths
CHAMPAIGN — When a house is burglarized, a detective arrives on the scene to analyze footprints or blood splatters. When a rogue government or crime syndicate infiltrates a computer system or when a cellphone has been crushed and data must be retrieved, private industry and government officials turn to digital forensics specialists.
Once a nascent field, digital forensics has gained momentum and attention in recent years, perhaps most recently by The New York Times's report last week of how extensive digital forensics evidence gathered by intelligence officials pointed to a complex hacking operation in China.
As the field of cybersecurity, which can include police officers, private investigators and government officials, is expected to grow in the coming years, a diverse team at the University of Illinois has begun to shape a curriculum to train future digital-forensics experts.
At the university, faculty have been active in and have taught popular classes in computer security for some time. Computer science Professor Roy Campbell, who is overseeing the curriculum development, likened computer security to protecting a home from burglaries by installing alarms and practicing certain behavior, such as not letting the newspapers pile up while you're on vacation. Digital forensics, he said, is the process followed when conducting an investigation after someone has broken into or robbed a home. You look for clues in digital devices.
"It's a complicated field," he said, because it not only requires sophisticated knowledge of digital devices, but also legal procedures, privacy rights, criminal psychology and more.
Computer scientists typically do not have much training in legal procedures, such as how to properly prepare evidence that will be introduced in court. At the same time, police officers are not as well versed on the inner workings of computers and networks as a computer scientist, he said.
"The result is a lack of trained professionals" and in recent years the National Science Foundation has been encouraging development in the field. A grant from the federal agency will help the university develop the curriculum for undergraduates.
"The government will need a huge workforce for this as well as the private sector," said Masooda Bashir, co-principal investigator on the project and assistant director of the social trust initiative in the College of Engineering. If someone commits accounting fraud using digital devices, companies and agencies need people with the expertise not only to detect it but also to outline what happened, she said.
A handful of universities and community colleges have responded to the growing demand for such professionals by offering a variety of undergraduate and graduate degrees and certificate programs. Essentially, everyone's doing their own thing, Bashir said.
"In the last few years, everyone is trying to see where it'd fit in the curriculum," Campbell said. "This stuff is new enough and not well understood enough that it is more of a practice. ... The theory has not been developed yet," he said.
Because it's a relatively new field of study, standards are needed, according to Bashir. The core of the new curriculum will be computer science, but students will delve into many more subjects, she said. Those include law, psychology, and the human aspects of digital forensics such as developing a profile and finding patterns that this person might follow.
It's not enough to know computer science, although that is critical, Bashir said.
"It's also important to understand how the legal system works, how criminal justice systems work, how to preserve that file so it can be presented in court, the legal implications of cyberlaws, what can or can't you do."
Bashir said the first, introductory class will be offered in fall 2013. The following year, in fall 2014, an advanced course will be offered.
"Both will have a lab component. It will be hands-on with case studies. There will be a crime, and students will solve it. They will write a report as if they were presenting it in court, so they will have to learn to write and report what occurred," Bashir said.
Because the department has seen an increase in interest and enrollment in related fields such as computer security, Bashir said, she anticipates the new courses will be well-received among students.
Organizers also plan to offer a digital forensics curriculum workshop, inviting other universities and colleges that offer classes in the field as well as those that want to offer them.
In addition to Campbell and Bashir, the team includes Jay Kesan, a College of Law professor; Anna Marshall, a professor of sociology and law; Frank Nekrasz, accountancy lecturer in the College of Business; David Nicol, director of the Information Trust Institute; and Bill Sanders, director of Coordinated Science Laboratory.
The group is also planning to collaborate with Parkland College and the UI Police Training Institute.