Young Cyber-Sleuths

Interns take a load off crime-lab cops and provide promise for the future.

by / May 1, 2006
Just a few months separate Kim Cardona from late nights in the library and final exams, but she believes she already found her professional niche.

A December 2005 graduate of Sage College of Albany, N.Y., Cardona hopes her internship at the New York State Police Computer Crime Unit is the beginning of a career in computer forensics.

"I'd like to be right where I am now," she said of her occupational goal.

That's precisely the aim of the CyberScience Laboratory's Embedded Intern Program, which helped Cardona land with the New York State Police to develop expertise in the computer crime-fighting arena -- an area sorely lacking in trained personnel.

The National Institute of Justice's Office of Science and Technology established the CyberScience Laboratory (CSL) in 2000 to provide training and act as a resource for state and local law enforcement agencies for cyber-crime investigation and technological assistance.

Eventually CSL developed an in-house internship program and began embedding interns in cyber-crime labs -- hence the Embedded Intern Program. CSL places top-notch students at crime labs across the country each semester. Each intern is paid $12 to $15 per hour (based on experience) with funds from the National Institute of Justice, and is assigned special tasks or a specific project that helps develop an interest in pursuing a career in the field.

"We want the student to stay in the field," said Robert DeCarlo, economic crime specialist who runs the CSL program. "I know for a fact they definitely need more support in the law enforcement world in terms of technology and smart up-and-coming, eager people to work these areas. For every cyber-crime lab, there are probably several hundred law enforcement agencies that don't have a lab."

The program places students with a study interest that might lend itself to a career in electronic crime investigation. Students majoring in criminal justice, IT, computer science and newer programs, such as economic crime investigation and fraud investigation are targeted for internships.

CSL has placed interns from Stanford University, the University of Miami, George Mason, Carnegie Mellon, Dartmouth, Cornell and Columbia, among others. Several interns are embedded with one of the many U.S. Secret Service Electronic Crimes Task Forces around the country near the students' schools, and some are placed in state crime labs.

"We really try to find somebody local and usually, that's not a problem," DeCarlo said, adding that there are a lot of great schools eager to place students into internships.

"The Secret Service feels that we have a unique opportunity to tap into this highly educated pool of students and prospective employees, and offer them an excellent means of hands-on experience," said Tom Mazur, a spokesman for the Electronic Crimes Task Force in Miami.

For the Secret Service, Mazur said, it's more a matter of gaining insight into future or prospective employees than a shortage of manpower. But the industry as a whole is in need of more trained personnel in the cyber-security field, according to Robert Hopper, computer crimes section manager with the National White Collar Crime Center (NW3C), which also has an intern program.

"There is a need nationally -- actually internationally -- but certainly within the United States, there's a big need," Hopper said. "There aren't enough computer forensics programs available to grow people in the profession. There just aren't."

Exponential Investigators
DeCarlo said the evolving technologies and ubiquitous criminal elements make developing electronic crime investigators imperative.

"We're not looking for code writers. We're looking for somebody who can bridge the gap between the physical, investigative, law enforcement world and the computer cyber-world," he said. "We're looking for a physical security-type person, but who also has the intellectual capacity to really understand their way around a computer and understand how to do things like computer forensics investigation, for example.

"I don't have to tell you, with the proliferation of the Internet and now specifically with wireless devices -- which most, if not all, store different types of digital media -- there's going to be an exponential increase in the need for investigators."

DeCarlo meticulously chooses students for crime-lab internships. He looks at their grades, majors, projects in which they have participated, and he talks with their advisers.

"I take a close look at background, what the student has done outside of school, the types of classes the student is interested in, and I take a very close look at cover letters. I'm examining what the student wants to do with him- or herself."

Cardona provided her academic adviser with a list of agencies for which she'd like to intern. The adviser then contacted CSL, which set up the internship with the New York State Police.

Lt. Ron Stevens, senior investigator at the New York State Police Computer Crime Unit's Forensic Investigation Center, said the paid CSL internship allowed the State Police to pick someone with the capability of taking on an important project.

"That allowed us to interview people," he said. "We were able to go through a selection process and select a person that came in and had the ability to pick the ball up and run."

Stevens said capable interns can help officers do their homework on key issues when time is scarce.

"They give you the ability to research, which you often don't have time to do because you're doing your police function," he said. "Research is something you would like to do, but if you have someone who follows directions and works with guidance, they're a huge asset."

Sometimes interns provide the agency with technical expertise that is otherwise hard to acquire, according to DeCarlo. "Typically police agencies get X amount of funding per year based on whatever their town or city or state allocates them. Anything outside of that, they basically have to bite the bullet on."

Training, he said, is one of those areas.

"We're providing these cop shops, these police agencies, with eager young minds that want to assist them in technical areas that [the agency] may not have the training for."

DeCarlo tries to match the needs of the agency and the student, and determine whether the student will function well in that type of environment.

"I basically try to gauge if they're interested in working in a laboratory environment, which may entail a great deal of sitting at a desk in front of a computer," he said. "But there really aren't any typical functions. It depends on the host agency."

Mazur said Secret Service interns work on various projects depending on their location in the country. "Some of the stuff they've worked on is credit card skimming research, database enhancements, and internal assignments and projects."

DeCarlo said interns are often sought for technical support.

"We've had interns that actually designed or developed different types of cyber-crime fighting software. We've had them author different types of manuals."

Cardona is helping develop a standard operating procedure manual for the New York State Police Computer Incident Response Vehicle -- a new crime-fighting weapon that will pull up on a crime scene and provide the forensic capabilities of a laboratory.

"It's a manual that explains everything from starting the vehicle to examining the computer, doing analysis, etc.," Cardona said.

Critical Importance
The NW3C is a federally funded, nonprofit organization that provides high-tech training so state and local law enforcement have the resources and skills to tackle computer crime, including the high-tech training of officers.

Interns in the CSL and NW3C programs work on worthwhile projects, and the work they do is critical to the agencies in which they work, according to DeCarlo.

"We like to make sure that the student is given a very substantial project to complete or work on," he said. "We don't want the student to be Xeroxing or faxing, or doing that kind of work."

Hopper said practicality counts when putting interns to work, even if the student isn't working on a high-priority case. For instance, when training police for high-tech investigation, NW3C equips classrooms around the country with 30 computers for officer use. Each computer must have all the course materials and information the officer will need for that class. That preparation is the intern's responsibility.

"We call it 'blowing out images,'" Hopper said. "So that image has to be configured and copied to 30 machines. It's got to be done right every single time. If it's not done right and you get a group of machines out there that you just shipped out to say, Albuquerque, N.M., and that intern didn't do it correctly, then you have 30 police officers in a class the next week that won't have the right stuff.

"Internships, if they are practical," Hopper continued, "are a wonderful thing."

After the internship, DeCarlo asks the student to produce a report, such as a PowerPoint presentation, that the CSL uses on its Web site and at educational seminars.

The NW3C strives to ensure interns leave with more than just a few bucks or credit for an internship, according to Hopper. "We really feel like they walk out of here with a skill set."

One engineering student with a minor in biometrics from the University of West Virginia completed an internship with NW3C, and as a result, stepped immediately into a full-time job with the Regional Information Sharing System (RISS) program. RISS is a federally funded program administered by the Department of Justice and comprises six regional centers, each tackling drug trafficking and cyber-crime, among other things.

"We gave her some great skills that she didn't have," Hopper said. "She can tear a computer apart and put it back together, load multiple operating systems, do things that people she graduated with wouldn't have a clue how to do. One of the things they [RISS] really liked about her skill set is she didn't just graduate with a degree, she graduated with some really usable skill sets."

Hopper called the internship programs a good deal for all parties involved, adding that when RISS interviewed the West Virginia intern, they could be confident in her background.

"They knew we wouldn't allow an intern to work here unless they had a good background. They trust that we're not going to allow somebody in the program that couldn't pass a background [check], for example."

Background Checks
Students are aware that a background check, sometimes a lengthy process, is required for an internship.

"The work they are doing is not, by and large, classified or anything like that," DeCarlo said. "But they need to be prepared, especially if they are going to work for the Secret Service, to take an extensive background check, and that could take a while."

It's an agency's responsibility, once it hires an intern, to ensure the student doesn't compromise an investigation by mishandling evidence.

"The cop shops would never give them access to something that might spoil the investigation," DeCarlo said. "It's up to the individual law enforcement agency to abide by that. There's an awful lot of work that can be done in support that wouldn't interfere with that."

The National Security Agency has a fine cyber-scholar internship program, according to DeCarlo, and the State Department has unpaid internships as well, but there is need for more.

"I would love for the program to grow, but a lot of it is driven by what we can afford to do," said DeCarlo. "We're a governmental program, not a for-profit agency, so the main beneficiaries of this are the students and the host agencies. As an aside, the rest of the state and local law enforcement community has access to [the interns'] work through our Web site. We look at it as sort of a force multiplier for the projects the interns work on."

For Cardona, the internship has given her a perspective on the New York State Police Crime Lab she didn't have before, and the assurance that she's right where she wants to be.

"The State Police is very far ahead in the world of computer forensics," she said. "I can't say that about a lot of other agencies. It's been unbelievable."
Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor Justice and Public Safety Editor