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‘White hat’ hackers, trained in W.Va., ride to the rescue

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Russian hacking is bad for privacy and bad for trust in American institutions.

But it’s good for a particular sector of the job market.

The Digital Forensics and Information Assurance degree program at Marshall University teaches students either how to prevent intrusion into computer networks or how to track down and provide criminal evidence if a computer system has been breached.

“We’re trying to deliver folks who know a lot and can do a lot,” said John Sammons, an associate professor in the program, which is in Marshall’s School of Forensic & Criminal Justice Sciences.

“There are more jobs than people who can fill them. A lot of folks like to hear that.”

Hacking has been one of America’s biggest buzzwords through the past year because of news report after news report about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign.

In October, the U.S. government concluded that Russians were behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee. The information obtained was then made public and became fodder in the presidential election. Then in December, U.S. intelligence agencies announced their conclusion that the Russian interference was aimed at helping Donald Trump’s election.

Bill Gardner displays one of the books used in the Digital Forensics/Information Assurance program at Marshall University.

“I’d say at the least they did shake the general person’s faith in our electoral system,” said Bill Gardner, an assistant professor in the Digital Forensic & Criminal Justice Sciences program at Marshall. “No ballot box or results were ever in question. It’s more of an informational thing.”

That’s because the U.S. voting and ballot-counting process is highly decentralized and handled by county clerks across America.

But all the discussion of hacking into the DNC, releasing damaging information from the emails obtained, and trying to influence the election has generated buzz around internet safety.

“Something that has gone on for years in the background has become public,” Gardner said. “We hack other countries. They hack us. We’ve been in each other’s power grids for probably 20 years.”

Marshall, through its digital forensics program, now has graduates working for what Gardner calls three-letter law enforcement organizations — the FBI and the CIA.

More work has been available through local law enforcement, seeking employees with computer skills to investigate crimes such as child pornography.

The Digital Forensics/Information Assurance program at Marshall has 84 students.

Much of Marshall’s training is hands-on and involves the question, “How do you get information off devices?”

Because we’re more and more often in the vicinity of smart devices, we leave behind more and more traces of what we’ve been doing.

Both Gardner and Sammons pointed to an Arkansas murder case where an Amazon Echo smart home device, which is always on and listening for voice commands, was seized by police in hopes that its constant listening might provide valuable clues.

Last year, the FBI sought to crack the password on an iPhone used by one of the San Bernadino terrorists and hired a white hat hacker for the job.

“A lot of this technology is silently recording a whole lot of stuff,” Sammons said.

Another skill for well-intentioned student hackers is helping organizations ensure they aren’t hacked in the first place. Marshall’s approach to this training is hands-on work where students — and Marshall emphasizes with permission — try to hack into computer systems to determine vulnerabilities and then make recommendations for patching.

“They actually do hacking to learn the procedure so they can defend against it,” Gardner said. “You have to break into their network and write a report. We’ve tried to make the courses at Marshall hands on. There’s a lot of doing.”

Marshall University’s Digital Forensics/Information Assurance program is in the Arthur Weisburg Family Applied Engineering Complex.

Marshall’s Digital Forensics and Information Assurance degree program has been in its current form, where students work toward a bachelor’s of science degree, for the past three years. Before that, it was an area of emphasis, usually with about eight students. Now there are 84.

“The university really saw this value,” Sammons said. “They got behind it, and here we are.”

Sammons began his career as an officer with the Huntington Police Department. He transitioned into technology with web design with a Barboursville company called Second Creek Technologies. He is also the founder and former President of the Appalachian Institute of Digital Evidence.Sammons fondly calls the area “Silicon Holler.”

The blend of Sammons’ earlier experiences led to an opportunity teaching at Marshall, where he has stayed since.

Gardner, who has journalism and political science degrees, started working in IT departments for Charleston law firms before studying on his own and testing to become an offensive security certified professional. Testing for that certificate is part of Marshall’s program.

“I’m self-taught,” Gardner said. “It’s how you used to become a network defender, or a good hacker, as we call ourselves.”

The route to white hat hacking is more direct for the students in Marshall’s program.

“Our profession,” Gardner said, “is becoming more professional.”

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