Brett's Blog

Just some ramblings.

Learn by drawing out the experiences of others

I have taught digital forensics at the University of Washington (on and off) for the better part of a decade.  I have also been a guest speaker at several universities for longer than that.  One thing that I learned from the continuing education courses is that most of the students are already working adults with many already working in the IT industry, and I take advantage of their experience by incorporating it into the classroom.

For example, I have had attorneys (prosecutors, public defenders, and civil attorneys), police officers, federal agents, software developers (some were founding members of commonly used software), and a few ‘white hat’ hackers in my courses.  Students who did not fit in any of those categories sat right next to them.

Can you imagine what you can learn being a student sitting next to the developer of a major Microsoft program for 10 weeks? Or next to a federal agent who was involved in well-known national security investigations?  Or a homicide detective of a large police department?

That was the benefit to the students: being able to absorb information from fellow students with years, if not decades, of experience.  On the first day of every course, I stress this to the students.  Take advantage of the 10-minute breaks, not by checking your email, but by talking.  Those 10-minutes breaks produce more relevant information than can be gained from a Google search, because you can talk to the people who have done it, do it every day, and want to share.  Rather than 'read' about a case, speak directly with someone who does those cases.

As for me, you better believe I took advantage of the students with experience, all for the betterment of the courses and myself.  In my prior law enforcement career as a city cop, I was a detective that worked undercover and was assigned to state, local, and federal task forces as well as investigated cyber-related crimes that spanned the planet.  I also investigated multi-national organized crime groups (drug trafficking organizations, gun trafficking, outlaw motocycle gangs, street gangs, human trafficking, counterfeit goods, etc…), terrorist cells in the United States, along with a few other crimes that took me across several states.

I give my brief background not to brag, but to show that even with my experience, I gained something from every class from nearly every person and I asked for it directly.  When I found that I had a software developer from a major software company in class, who worked on a program that I use daily…I used him for discussions in class on incorporating that program into forensic analysis reporting and visualization.  Every student in the course may not have recognized the value of speaking with someone instrumental in that one program, but we all learned new ways to use something in forensics that we would not have learned otherwise.  

Courses with law enforcement and attorneys as students also created a great amount of material and discussion based on how they do different aspects of the same job, in their different positions, titles, and agencies.  Hearing from a federal public defender talk about how forensics fits in with her work alongside a prosecutor talking about the same information but applied differently really gives the entire room a wide spectrum of knowledge.  Throwing in the investigator perspective rounds it all out. 

Granted, I’m only talking about continuing education programs.  I’ve taken and spoken at a few college degree programs where the students are students and not yet even in the workforce.  That type of class is an entirely different animal where the instructor had better know what she is talking about.  And yes, I’ve taken courses where a professor had never connected a write-blocker to a hard drive, ever…not in real life or in the classroom…never testified…never created a forensic image…yet teaches the students to do this by reading a book.  That is not the case with most schools, but certainly a few.  

In the course I teach at the University of Washington (I will call it “my” course…), I give students maximum hands-on, maximum time on the keyboard, maximum time working with the tools and maximum real-life information so that they are not only near-competent to competent, but marketable.  I call my course, “Brett’s Digital Forensics Bootcamp” (without the yelling). I don’t like wasting time and I want to teach a course that I wish I could have taken when first starting out.  That means getting your hands on data as much as possible.

One last point about continuing education programs (for higher education courses)

A conversation I had last week about DFIR certifications ended with me talking about continuing education and college degrees as perhaps a better route over certifications for certain people.  For anyone already in the IT field, I find that a continuing education certification from a major university to be ‘better’ than a vendor certification, or if not better, certainly worthwhile.  I say ‘better’ in the sense that most people in IT already have some certs on their resume.  They may not be digital forensics certs, but technology-related certs nonetheless.  Certs also expire, or are discontinued because a business goes out of business or decides to create a new cert.  Having a continuing education cert from the University of Name Your College doesn’t expire, has more clout (or is that now called klout?) through regional accreditation, and is most times considered graduate-level instruction. 

Another benefit of a continuing education course is that since the courses are not vendor specific, the whole gamut of tools can be explored along with the SPECIFICS OF THE JOB.  Vendor courses focus so much on the sale and function of their tool, little time is left to the other aspects of the job that are just as important, if not more important.  I’ve taken well over a dozen vendor courses and I cannot remember any of the courses teaching forensics, other than what their tool does for forensics.

Not knowing how to collect, analize, and present defensible evidence effectively makes the examiner ineffective, incompetent, and can ruin a case.  Especially when someone has not been taught "what is evidence", finding the elusive evidence is near impossible if you don't know what it is.  Even police officers must know the elements of a crime in order to know what a crime looks like.

Yes, you must know how software works, but you also must know the job.  It’s like driving.  You may know how to drive a car, but if you don’t know the rules of the road, you will end up getting ticketed or worse.

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