Cracking the codes: Students master digital forensics challenge

Digital Forensics Challenge winners

A team of four Arizona State University computer science students has earned top awards in an international competition to test skills in digital forensics science.

Daming Chen, James Fiacco, Jose Ibarra and Christopher Thornton placed first among more than 630 teams vying for the overall award for competitors from the United States in the DC3 Digital Forensics Challenge, organized the by the U.S. Department of Defense Cyber Crime Center.

Their score was the second-highest among more than 1,100 teams from 52 countries. Their performance also earned them first place among 220 teams of undergraduate students from around the world.

Fiacco, a junior, and sophomores Chen, Ibarra and Thornton are students in ASU’s Barrett, The Honors College. Each is studying in the computer science program in the School of Computing, Informatics and Decision Systems Engineering, one of ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

The online competition required participants to perform a series of tasks throughout most of the past year, challenging them to uncover and extract data and other materials encrypted, encoded or otherwise hidden in digital media sources.

Digital forensics involves finding, analyzing and investigating information, messages and images in devices capable of storing digital data – including computers, mobile communications devices and audio and video technologies. It also entails analyzing intrusions into digital media information networks and databases.

The defense department’s cyber crime center (DC3) uses this branch of forensics to aid investigations in criminal cases – particularly fraud cases – as well as in counterintelligence and counterterrorism efforts, and to ensure the security of government information sources.

“They are interested in seeing the methods people come up with” to uncover hidden data, Fiacco says. “So they learn a lot from putting on this competition.”

The competition was also an educational experience for ASU’s team. “It took a lot of research to complete some of the tasks,” Chen says. “We learned a lot of new stuff.”

They knew they had performed well in solving most of the puzzles, but say they were surprised by their award-winning results.

Their score topped not only those of many other teams of undergraduates from leading universities, but also competitors from government agencies and major companies – third place overall went to a group from the Northup Grumman aerospace and defense technology corporation.

The ASU team wins a trip to the 2012 Department of Defense Cyber Crime Conference in January in Atlanta, where they will receive their awards and have an opportunity to present their work. The students will also receive prizes including new digital devices and digital forensics software.

What they’ve learned through the DC3 Challenge motivated them to establish a new ASU student organization during the fall semester. The Association for Computer Systems Security is designed for students to further their knowledge of cyber security, including digital forensics.
Fiacco says they’re hoping to attract not only computer science students, but also electrical engineering and computer systems engineering majors, as well as students in the sciences, particularly biology.
They’re now exploring additional opportunities to further hone their skills by entering more computer science competitions, and hoping members of their new student organization will help assemble strong teams to represent ASU.