That CERTain Feeling

INI students solidify interest in cyber forensics through CERT® internships

INI student Ryan Shaw wakes up everyday excited to go to work. So does fellow INI Master of Science in Information Security Technology and Management (MSISTM) student Ashley Keith. Not many people can say the same. However, according to Shaw and Keith, it's easy to love your job when you work at Carnegie Mellon's CERT®, where they are research assistants for the summer.

CERT®, the nation's first computer emergency response team, is operated by Carnegie Mellon's Software Engineering Institute (SEI), a federally funded research and development center (FFRDC). Internationally recognized for its Internet security expertise, CERT® develops and promotes technology and practices for improved security at the software and system levels.

Ryan ShawShaw began interning at CERT® in fall 2009 after approaching INI faculty members Chris May and Rich Nolan and expressing his interest in cyber forensics. Shaw's early work on CERT®'s Forensics team gave him a taste for the various investigative challenges CERT® handles and taught him valuable skills crucial to the information security industry, knowledge he wanted to continue to build.

Shaw is developing and implementing a tool for a law enforcement customer, which will greatly increase the speed and accuracy of analysis performed on electronic data collected for an investigation. As a result, law enforcers will be able to react faster than ever before. Through this project, Shaw has realized that communication and proper planning techniques are essential for creating a successful product.

"Proper communication and coding practices are an absolute must if you are going into this field," Shaw said. "It doesn't matter if you are one of the best programmers in the world; many projects are out of scope of a single coder and require multiple assets to finish in a timely manner."

Additionally, Shaw has learned the importance of customer relations. According to Shaw, enabling customers to communicate what they want, designing a product extensibly to add features when plans change, and delivering the end solution they truly need is what makes a project successful.

"When all of these conditions are met, you have a wonderful product and a satisfied customer," Shaw said.

During his time at the INI, Shaw's interest in cyber forensics has only grown. He has taken advantage of the many opportunities at CERT®, and he is currently pursuing the INI's new Cyber Forensics and Incident Response Track, a sequence of courses that develop skills in both host/network computer forensics and digital investigations.

"CERT® has solidified that forensics is definitely a top interest of mine," Shaw said. "I will pursue that wherever it may take me."

Ashley KeithKeith was drawn to CERT® after enrolling in several courses in the Cyber Forensics and Incident Response Track, which she is also pursuing. These courses piqued Keith's interest in cyber forensics, a perfect blend of her undergraduate degrees in computer science and criminal justice, and so she began interning at CERT® during her first semester at the INI to expand her knowledge in these and related areas.

Working with Chris May, and CERT®'s Workforce Development team, Keith updates labs from the Virtual Training Environment, integrates new labs, which involves adjusting some of the virtual machines and their networks, and helps develop and record videos to demonstrate the software tools used in various labs and exercises.

Keith's INI classroom knowledge helps her significantly to perform these tasks. In particular, courses that used virtual machines were helpful, and the Applied Information Assurance course introduced Keith to the lab style and training environment she works with everyday.

"This internship has provided valuable academic and professional experience," Keith said. "I have learned about security vulnerabilities and remediation techniques, as well as the importance of communication, versioning control and organization in the workplace."

Through her work at CERT®, Keith has learned a variety of new problem-solving approaches, including techniques for hardening different computer systems, techniques for attack mitigation and remediation, and techniques for applying company policies. She has also learned effective ways to convey technical information, a concept she hopes to apply to her final year at the INI.

"Helping develop the demonstration videos this summer taught me the usefulness of identifying examples based on real-world experiences. I have used analogies to libraries, postal services, castles and more," Keith said. "I have found that these simple explanations really help people understand complex computer concepts, and I want to apply this same approach to my courses when studying for exams."

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As Scholarship for Service (SFS) recipients, Shaw and Keith will work for the federal government or in a federally funded research and development center for at least two years after graduating from the INI in May 2011. This commitment is in exchange for the full tuition and stipend they each received during their graduate degree program. Beyond that, Shaw and Keith feel prepared for any field they pursue from their INI and CERT® experiences.

"I have gained technical, professional and academic experience," Keith said. "Each of these areas has contributed to my professional development and can be applied to a future career."