John, can you tell us something about your background and why you decided to teach digital forensics?
First, thanks for the opportunity to discuss our program. We’re really proud of what we’ve accomplished here and believe we’re contributing to the digital forensics community. I started as a mathematician (Ph.D., University of Connecticut, 1980) and then began to teach computer science as well as mathematics in the 1980s. I wrote two programming textbooks (Pascal, for the old timers). About six or seven years ago, my department was investigating majors that would be good for students. We decided upon computer forensics. It is an interesting, useful field of study that has worked really well for us and our students.On the intellectual side, I find the whole issue of what information can be found and how it can be used to build a story quite fascinating. “Story” here means a narrative that shows what happened, in a rigorous sense (a la a mathematician’s proof). As a professor, it’s really fun to work with digital forensics students. Our curriculum has a lot of hands on work so we see our students really digging into things. The ultimate reward is seeing them graduate and begin work. I must note that I’ve had really great colleagues, particularly Scott Inch, to work with. I also am grateful to the larger forensics community for their help.
What digital forensic courses are currently offered by Bloomsburg University?
Introduction to Digital Forensics, File Systems 1 and 2, Digital Forensics Software, Advanced Topics in Digital Forensics, Small Devices Forensics, UNIX/Linux for Digital Forensics.
Tell us more about course structure and content. What core knowledge and key skills should students gain by the end of their studies?
The first five courses listed above (along with some computer science and other courses) form the backbone of our major. They cover the artifacts that can be found on a computer (and how they come to be), how the artifacts can be extracted in a forensically sound manner and how they can be linked together and presented or reported. As an example, students know why a deleted file may or may not be able to be recovered, how to use a tool like EnCase or FTK (or even a hex editor) to recover it, how it might be related to a link file or a registry entry, how to ensure its integrity after extraction using a hash function and how to include it in a report. We stress the importance of knowing how the computer is organizing files and generating artifacts so that what a tool produces is understood. Our graduates are prepared to defend their results. We also put this work in context. It’s not just finding a deleted file, it’s finding evidence which may change a person’s life. So beyond knowledge and skills, we foster a sense of responsibility and integrity.
Please describe the facilities available to digital forensics students at Bloomsburg University.
We have a classroom/lab with 25 machines each with EnCase, FTK and X-Ways. Of course, we also take advantage of free tools. It’s a very powerful teaching environment. As soon as we discuss something, we can look at an example. This room is used for classes around 30 hours a week. At all other times it is open to digital forensics students (and no other students). There’s an exterior door which their IDs will open, so they literally can get in to work at 1AM (which does happen). In addition we have a research lab for advanced students working on projects. It has several computers with the appropriate software along with imaging hardware and write blockers. It also has a large variety of cell phone acquisition software and hardware, up to and including a Faraday box. It has large collections of hard disks and cell phones (many different models and manufacturers) available for research.
What is the most challenging aspect of teaching digital forensics?
There are two that stand out. Keeping up to date is an enormous hurdle (no surprise to the forensic community). Every new device, storage medium, operating system, etc. poses several questions. What are its implications for forensics? Is it a core concern, something every forensics person should know about? If it’s important, how do we put it into the curriculum? While I enjoy working on these problems, they are extremely time consuming. It’s very hard to devise examples, exercises and labs for courses. A real constraint is the time students have to work on them. Particularly for beginning courses, there’s very little room for ambiguity. At the same time, making an exercise realistic is important. For example, what’s a good lab for string searching?
The graduate employment market continues to be highly competitive. What advice would you give to final year digital forensics students to help them stand out from the crowd?
Our graduates with a 3.0 or better average have been fairly successful in getting employment, so the first and really important advice I give is when they start as freshmen: keep the grades up. There are several things that students can do toward the end of college to have a bragging point. The obvious one is an internship during the summer before the senior year. Doing a project or research leading to a publication or presentation is good. Students shouldn’t limit themselves. One of my advisees has been studying Arabic and is spending the summer in the Mideast to learn that culture and immerse himself in the language. Another one of my advisees ran seriously for the state house of representatives. Both bring something special to the table. It’s probably more important to have a bragging point than to have a particular bragging point.
When you're not teaching, how do you relax and unwind?
I’m a serious distance runner. Most mornings I get a ten mile run in. In road races, I usually place in my age group. I’m also a little bit of a musician. I ring in a hand bell choir and attempt to play the piano.