Students learn important secrets behind cyber forensics

If any computers or smartphones were to be confiscated during the investigation of recent identity thefts at Ball State University, BSU instructor Vinayak Tanksale’s students would know what to do before examining the evidence.

“Let’s say you go to the crime scene and have a warrant to take this computer back to the lab,” he tells students enrolled in a digital forensics course.

First, you photograph it from all angles, including anything on the screen and any cards plugged into it. Then you take it to the lab and make a copy of the hard drive.

“You never actually work on the hard drive,” he says. “That’s like working on the murder weapon. You make a copy of the hard drive to investigate. You never want to touch the original one. If you change a single zero or one on the hard drive, that is tainted evidence … and your whole case may go down the drain.”

Tanksale instructs students not to remove a smartphone from a crime scene unless it’s placed in a Faraday cage to prevent connectivity to cellular networks. “If you walk away with a cellphone or smartphone, what if someone sends a text message to it?” Tanksale says. “A smart defense lawyer can say it was modified after you picked it up.”

About 60 current Ball State students are digital forensics minors, according to criminal justice and criminology department chairman Greg Morrison. Required courses include criminology, policing, criminal evidence, criminal law, computer science, computer security, digital forensics and geographic information systems.

“I talk about the different threats and investigative techniques,” said Tanksale, whose course includes lectures and labs where students search for a needle in a haystack containing gigabytes of data from real computer hard drives.

Identity theft is one of the threats, as at least 140 Ball State faculty and staff have learned recently. Their Social Security numbers were stolen and used to obtain fraudulent tax refunds in their names.

Other crimes that could be investigated by some of Tanksale’s students in the future include credit card theft, cyber stalking through social media, industrial espionage, child pornography, script kiddies (“high school students who may want bragging rights that they can take down or deface websites”), state-sponsored hacking and phishing, the instructor said.

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