Learning from the next generation: Student research at #HTCIACon

Jon Ford Virtual Desktop research

Jon Ford describes his Virtual Desktop research

Before the HTCIA conference, we blogged about a new style of presentation: student poster presentations, which would give graduate and undergraduate college students the chance to talk to professionals about their research.

Six students were on hand in Indian Wells, presenting on a wide range of topics from information security to law enforcement volunteer jobs:

Infosec and e-government

Tim Perez is a doctoral student at Dakota State University and is working on a dissertation entitled “E-Government Security Concerns for Municipal Government Entities.” Having worked for eight years as an information technologist for a local law enforcement agency, Perez sees that communities with small budgets and few regulatory requirements tend to focus less on security.

However, measures like online bill pay, which increase both efficiency and convenience, make security necessary because they deal with personally identifiable information. Perez’ research focuses on how to communicate these issues in a way that municipal managers will understand.

Learning incident response by doing

Another project that brought together law enforcement, security, and education was a Cal Poly Pomona Senior Project. Chris Curran, at the time a college professor and SoCal HTCIA Chapter President, approached students to design an entire scenario, from players to the crime to the resulting analysis.  The completed project would then be used as a final exam for other forensic students.

Student Steve Gabriel came up with the scenario involving a fictional disgruntled university IT employee, who had “stolen” critical source code and hidden it in a System 33 file when he went to a new job. Gabriel utilized multiple web browsers, along with Trillian instant-messaging and Outlook email software. Several other students played the other fictional roles, communicating and using digital media that was later imaged and provided as “suspect” evidence.

To find the evidence and create an answer key for Curran, Gabriel and the others used FTK, EnCase, AccessData’s Registry Viewer, and a SQLite database viewer. Gabriel said the project received good feedback for being an incident response-type case with multiple exploit layers and 25 gigabytes of evidence.

Security vs. performance with supercomputing

On the preventive side of network security was work that Cal State-San Bernardino students Kyle Sandoval, David Warner and Estevan Trujillo had done for the 2011 Computer System, Cluster and Networking Summer Institute at Los Alamos National Laboratories. Their research broke ground on the cost of deploying firewalls on each node of a supercomputing cluster, rather than on the 4,000-node cluster as a whole.

The reason: security measures should always be installed on each separate computer, but supercomputers are so expensive to power that even a five percent drop in computational performance – such as what a firewall might result in – can exponentially add to their cost.

Thus in their project, Sandoval, Warner and Trujillo used a Linux cluster and created multiple IPTables rule sets. They used these to run a series of benchmarking tools that measured bandwidth, latency, and MPI job performance. They wanted to determine what performance implications IPTables firewall had on a cluster.

With just 10 test machines and a 6-week period, the research concluded simply that more research was needed – and the students anticipate that the lab will continue their work.

Virtualization for mobile device management

Jonathan Ford is a student at Cal State University and a volunteer for a nearby sheriff’s department, which was starting to provide official-use iPads to its officers. A number of issues presented themselves with that initiative:

First, the iPads’ remote access to a virtual machine would work for 10 to 20 users, but large numbers – the kind that would be seen on an average shift – made the virtual machine unstable and caused it to crash. Second, different users would need different levels of access to records depending on their role. Finally, to minimize the risk from vulnerabilities – not just on iPads, but also on the other 3,000 or so disparate devices in use – the agency needed a way to manage a variety of operating systems, software and users.

Ford’s answer: a Virtual Desktop, which would save both time and money by enabling:

  • upgrades and patches to occur just once rather than for each system
  • data to be stored on a server
  • administrators to keep a list of which users had access to which software applications

The second part of Ford’s research shows law enforcement agencies the benefits of integrating academic research into their everyday operations. “Many agencies cannot hire full-time employees, but they still need support with computer forensics and security – the fields students want experience in,” he says. “Writing grants for research means each can get what they need.”

How law enforcement can benefit from student volunteers

Cal State-Sacramento student Alex Krepelka had earned a GCFA and wanted to use it. But he didn’t just stop at volunteering for the Butte County District Attorney’s Office – he turned it into research, the better with which to help law enforcement develop their own computer forensics and security volunteer programs.

Krepelka thinks it would help if agencies could fall back on a set of national standards for forensic investigations that will go to trial – from county to county, some agencies allow for volunteers while others do not, but many agencies have backlogs of hundreds of cases. He also thinks that if students knew they could get valuable real-world experience from organizations that needed their expertise, more would study computer security and forensics.

The value of HTCIA student affiliations

Krepelka believes that organizations like the HTCIA can help – and that’s where the final research project comes in. Austin Pham, a student at Cal Poly Pomona, presented on the Forensic and Security Technology (FAST) organization, HTCIA’s student charter at that school. FAST affords students the opportunity to take workshops on data acquisition, analysis and reporting – as well as on industry standard forensic tools, including EnCase and FTK.

This is thanks to its affiliation with the HTCIA SoCal chapter and the forensic professionals who are members there. “We hold six meetings a quarter and some training workshops throughout the year,” says Pham, “and we always get great turnout.” During the student charter’s first signing, in fact, 25+ students expressed interest in membership, and the organization has grown ever since.

Pham added that he and other FAST students had all volunteered to assist with our conference, because of all that HTCIA had invested in them. They registered participants, directed attendees to lecture and lab rooms, and assisted presenters with equipment and other needs.

All six student presenters told us that they had seen a good amount of foot traffic, which resulted in some good comments and questions – especially those for whom the topics hit home. The feedback will help them validate and refine their research, ultimately making it stronger for the entire community.

Anna Carlin, the instructor who coordinated the presentation, adds that the students themselves benefit in a variety of ways: not just with the ability to conduct more credible research, but also with exposure to the very professionals who are in a position to give them jobs or grants.

Did you meet our students in Indian Wells? Want to see future research presented at our conferences? Leave us a comment and let us know what you think!


2 Responses to Learning from the next generation: Student research at #HTCIACon

  1. […] always like to hear about the cool new projects our students are engaging in, so we were excited to see University of Cincinnati student charter president Shadi Dibbini post on […]

  2. […] always like to hear about the cool new projects our students are engaging in, so we were excited to see University of Cincinnati student charter president Shadi Dibbini post on […]

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