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October 24, 2011

Champlain College's Center For Digital Investigation Opens for Business

CC Ctr Digital Investigation#1Let the digital sleuthing begin!

The Champlain College Center for Digital Investigation just opened shop two weeks ago in Burlington's South End and already it's providing an invaluable service to Vermont companies, government agencies and state and local law enforcement.

Housed in the college's new Miller Center at Lakeside Campus, "C3DI" gives students an opportunity to work on real-life digital forensics investigations outside the classroom, in a setting that measures up to FBI and international forensics-industry standards.

Jonathan Rajewski is an instructor at Champlain College and a digital forensics examiner with the Vermont Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, based at the Burlington Police Department. Rajewski runs C3DI with Michael Wilkinson, a former digital criminal investigator with the New South Wales Police Force. There, Wilkinson oversaw a team of about two dozen experts who handled more than 1000 digital forensic investigations per year for Australia's largest crime-fighting agency.

Like other types of criminal evidence, such as fingerprints, murder weapons and DNA samples, digital evidence must be collected and preserved in a "forensically verifiable manner" so it's not damaged or destroyed in the process. Examiners like Rajewski and Wilkinson are often hired by police — or attorneys in civil cases — to access the contents of digital devices, from smart phones to network servers, without altering the original data.

Although C3DI students cannot be assigned to criminal cases per se — only Rajewski and Wilkinson can handle those types of investigations — Champlain students receive the same training and use the same tools as those used by police investigators.

As Rajewski explains, C3DI uses a "student team model" similar to the approach used at Champlain's Emergent Media Center for teaching computer gaming technologies. At C3DI, students work collectively on projects involving real-world cases. For example, a Vermont company may be investigating whether one of its current or former employees used the company's computers for conducting personal business on company time, or for harassing a fellow worker.

C3DI students are also assigned special projects for Vermont law enforcement agencies, such as creating backup systems for their administrative functions. 

"Our whole goal is to get as many students involved as possible," says Rajewski, who was recently named the 2011 Digital Forensics Examiner of the Year. "Some of our students have internships at government agencies and have clearances that they can't even tell me." 

C3DI's student team approach doesn't just benefit the students themselves. As Rajewski explains, their Vermont clients benefit enormously by getting high-quality forensic and data-recovery services at a fraction of the price of a large consulting firm, which can charge $300 or more per hour.

"One of the biggest [expenses] in consulting is travel," he adds. "If you bring in a team from New York City, it’s going to cost you $5000 to $10,000 in travel costs alone." 

Currently, C3DI also offers free data recovery services to all Champlain student, faculty and staff free of charge, which can run hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.

One C3DI student is working on a proposal to create a mobile response unit for doing digital investigations at crime scenes, similar to other types of digital forensics labs. Obviously, having students doing this type of research frees up police investigators for more pressing and time-sensitive business.

As Seven Days reported in its December 8, 2010 cover story, "Digital Apprehensions," Champlain College received a $500,000 federal grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to set up the digital forensics lab, with additional support from the Burlington Police Department, Vermont State Police and the Vermont Internet Crimes Task Force (ICTF).

CC center Digital#3At first glance, C3DI doesn't look overly impressive. Located on the mostly unfinished third floor of the Miller Center, it's basically three locked rooms with large glass windows, a scattering of desks, phones and computer servers. A few desktop monitors appear to be running Matrix-like computer programs (right). Later, I learn from Wilkinson that it's actually just some very cool "eye candy."

Nevertheless, the lab itself was built to precise international and FBI specifications, which include multiple layers of security and two independent computer networks that cannot be accessed from outside the center. In effect, C3DI cannot be hacked — unless someone physically breaks into the place.

And C3DI isn't just a bunch of nifty new hardware in freshly painted rooms. As of May, Champlain implemented a brand-new curriculum in digital forensics that can compete with any of its kind in the United States. Rajewski and Wilkinson decided that in order for Champlain to be competitive with the 50 or so other university-based digital-forensics programs, it would need to offer 10 separate digital forensic classes as well as six supplemental courses. Beginning in 2012, Champlain will begin offering a Master's degree in Digital Forensics Science.

"I think we’re giving students an amazing hands-on opportunity outside the classroom," Rajewski says. "I can count on one hand the number of colleges that offer this kind of thing."

Currently, C3DI's services are open to all Vermont-based companies, governments and law enforcement agencies. For more information, visit their website here or call (802) 860-2700 or 1-800-570-5858.

Photos courtesy of Stephen Mease, Champlain College.

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