Undergraduate cyber sleuths take on U.S. Department of Defense challenge © March 21, 2008 Norwich University Office of Communications

Photo illustration of computer tape reel.

For most people, receiving a chipped or broken CD in the mail means an inconvenience. For the Norwich undergraduates competing in the Digital Forensics Challenge, it’s a puzzle asking to be solved.

Sponsored by the Cyber Crimes Office of the U.S. Department of Defense, the Digital Forensics Challenge (DC3) offers its participants the opportunity to demonstrate their forensic and analytical skills and, perhaps, to help develop new investigative tools, techniques, and technologies. Because the competition is open to anyone who thinks they’re up to the challenge, Norwich University students have pitted their know-how against individuals, competitors from private industry, and students from other colleges and universities since the first DC3 in 2006. They have consistently been among the front-runners

“They’re students craving more knowledge,” said Danielle Zeedick, professor of computer science, who introduced undergraduates to the DC3 and encouraged them to participate. “We gave them a venue, and they just ran with it.”

The first set of Norwich contenders was an unofficial student group Zeedick called the “Super Secret Squirrels” after a cartoon show from the 1960s. In addition to tackling the DC3, where they placed seventh out of 140 teams, three “Squirrels” participated in Combined Endeavor (CE-07), a NATO network-interoperability exercise that included teams from more than 40 nations. The Norwich students were the only university cadre invited.

The example the Squirrels set made an impression on Keith Gilbert, a sophomore majoring in computer science and information assurance. “[DC3] was something that both of my roommates did my freshman year,” he said. “I looked at a couple of the challenges, did all that I could to help out with it, but since I wasn’t on the team there wasn’t much I could do.”

Just looking at the photo, you aren’t able to tell there’s something hidden there. But if you analyze it properly, you can extract the data and reform the message or file.

~ Keith Gilbert

After one of his roommates transferred to another college, Gilbert got in on the action with classmate Travis Tyler. Despite registering late for the 2007 DC3, the team members (who called themselves the CyberCadets) learned in late 2007 that they finished fifth out of 126 teams registered.

In the DC3 competition, teams are presented with several different kinds of problems. They also have to document their solutions.

These tests range from retrieving data from damaged media such as CDs, DVDs or flash drives, to analyzing steganography, which is when data is “hidden in plain sight,” such as file or code embedded in a digital image. “Just looking at the photo, you aren’t able to tell there’s something hidden there,” Gilbert said. “But if you analyze it properly, you can extract the data and reform the message or file.”

Zeedick, who describes the CyberCadets as “very advanced,” noted the 2007 DC3 was much more difficult than the 2006 challenge. The 2007 competition was more intense in part because “there were a couple of challenges that were placed there for research purposes,” Gilbert said. “They wanted to see if anyone could find new ways to attack a particular problem.” Only 11 of the teams competing turned in solutions.

This year, Gilbert and Tyler, along with Matt Nesteruk and Stuart Schutta, both in the Class of 2009, have registered for the 2008 DC3 and are waiting for the competition package to arrive in late March or early April. They will have until November to submit their solutions.

“It’s excellent experience in analytical abilities and technical processes for computer forensics,” Zeedick said.

Indeed, the chance to test his mettle in DC3 against some of the best minds coming up in the field has encouraged Gilbert to apply to be a National Security Agency Scholar, which would include a guaranteed job with the intelligence agency after graduation. “That would be my ideal hope right now, to win that scholarship,” he said. “I definitely would like to work for the government in this type of field.”