CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As a new year dawns, it's hard to say where rapid-fire technological change and dizzying digital transformations will take society next.
But digital crime and online misbehavior? Now, there's a growth field.
With an increasingly popular series of classes in "digital forensics," Marshall University is training a new generation of students to keep up with this new generation of crime.
"The Internet is a great and wonderful tool that allows everyone to benefit from everyone else's experience and skills. The same holds true whether it be medicine, computer science or crime," said assistant professor John Sammons.
Authorities scour hard drives, emails and digital devices for files, images and other data involved in everything from identity theft and corporate intrigue, to child pornography and terrorism, he said.
As the darker side of human behavior continues to manifest digitally there comes a pressing need for training in how to find, sort, analyze and make evidence of it legally usable, said Sammons, a former Huntington Police Department drug unit investigator.
"One of the big challenges here is the whole needle in a haystack thing because there are millions or billions of files on a computer. That's just one self-contained desktop computer. When you're start talking a commercial environment with multiple servers, you're talking terabytes, petabytes, tons and tons of data," said Sammons.
A petabyte is a unit of information equal to one quadrillion bytes, or 1,000 terabytes, which is itself a pretty massive chunk of data.
Marshall's digital forensics classes began in 2005 as an "area of emphasis" and are part of a Computer Information Technology degree from the College of Science. When Sammons, 46, joined the university's Integrated Science and Technology Department in 2008, there were just eight students taking the series of classes. This last semester, there were 32.
He and his colleagues hope to make digital forensics its own major some day. Meanwhile, the university is now advertising for two new department faculty who will start next fall, one of whom will focus on cyber security issues. For now, students take part in a series of computer lab and lecture classes, as they track the trail of digital evidence through computers, networks, cell phones and the Internet cloud.
They learn how to collect evidence, document a digital crime scene and explore the many ways deleted data can be recovered, said Sammons.
Keeping up with the rapidly changing world of data, encryption, hardware and software developments is part of the landscape of digital forensics. "Every day you go to work here you're going to find something new and different," he said.
To get started, Sammons has written a primer to the field, due out on Feb. 29, by Syngress, titled "The Basics of Digital Forensics: The Primer for Getting Started in Digital Forensics."
"It's designed for the beginner, someone who doesn't understand, for example, how a hard drive stores data. Even if you're trying to wipe the hard drive or delete incriminating files there are other places that are very hard to get to -- if you don't know how to do it -- that are going to leave evidence."