Students flock to 'computer forensics'
Field, viewed as cutting edge in crime fight
As a high school junior, Clifford Pierre-Antoine couldn't do much about tracking down those responsible for the World Trade Center terror attacks, so he did the next best thing: He set himself on a career path to the FBI that combines his passion for technology with his commitment to justice.
Now a college-bound senior from East Boston, Pierre-Antoine plans on majoring in computer forensics, a 21st-century form of technological crime-fighting that college officials say is becoming so popular they're adding courses and even majors to keep up.
Call them ''Cyber sleuths,'' ''Digital detectives,'' or even ''Dick Tracy with a desktop,'' these disciples of shows such as ''CSI: Crime Scene Investigation'' and Court TV's ''Forensic Files'' see themselves as the future of law enforcement and corporate security.
''My students all want to use computers to solve crimes,'' said Stephanie Hartwell, director of the graduate forensic services program at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. ''Computer forensics is the hottest thing since sliced bread.''
The field is a broad one, encompassing everything from examining personal computers used by drug dealers and child pornographers to companies who hire security professionals to prevent losses due to computer viruses and hackers.
The field will only grow as computers become an ever larger part of modern life, said Anthony Gentilucci, who seven years ago cofounded the New England chapter of the nonprofit High Technology Crime Investigation Association.
''Traditional crimes like bank robberies, thefts, and frauds are now being committed by computers,'' said Gentilucci, a Hewlett-Packard executive from Boston. ''And most of the evidence when the computer is used as a tool in a crime is on the computer or on the server.''
Some colleges and universities are responding to the trend.
At Boston University, nearly every computer course has added material on computer forensics, including courses on networking, software engineering, operating systems, and cryptography, said Azer Bestavros, chairman of the computer science department.
''There's a feeling that every student should be exposed to how to write safe codes that can't be penetrated by an adversary,'' Bestavros said. ''It's clearly becoming more important with computers becoming less of a luxury and more of a commodity.''
UMass-Lowell this year began offering a graduate certificate in ''Criminal Justice Infomatics,'' which uses technology to understand crime. The school also is allowing criminal justice majors to take a technology course to satisfy the foreign language requirement - so students can take crime mapping or data analysis instead of French, for example.
And a new course will be introduced next year, ''Overview of Computer Crime,'' said Eve Buzawa, chairwoman of the school's criminal justice department.
At Worcester Polytechnic Institute, officials in November created a graduate certificate program in information security to help defend against ''real-world information security attacks.''
At least one college is taking the trend even further. Champlain College in Burlington, Vt., last month created a new major, the Digital Forensics Technology program, that opens for the first time in the fall.
Nine students already have signed up, including Pierre-Antoine, 17, who now attends the John D. O'Bryant High School of Mathematics and Science in Roxbury.
Gary Kessler, a professor at the school and codirector of the new program, said the need for a separate major became clear after a new computer forensics course quickly filled in the fall and spring semesters. Kessler, a consultant to local and state police in Vermont, said his work with law enforcement officials has made it clear there's a need for people trained in computer forensics.
''You name any type of crime and there's a very good probability that there's a computer involved,'' said Kessler.
For example, criminals use computer spreadsheets to keep track of profits or e-mail to communicate with accomplices, Kessler said. And drug traffickers use digital cameras to photograph themselves with stashes of drugs, while money launderers and other white-collar criminals use sophisticated programs to organize their business.
After committing to Champlain, Pierre-Antoine at first signed up to major in criminal justice. Then he switched to computer networking. Now, the new major will give him ''the best of both worlds.''
''Computer forensics is interesting,'' Pierre-Antoine said. ''It's a new technology. And the future is built on computers.''
He hopes to use the skills he will learn to also fight hate crimes, such as the 1998 murder of James Byrd Jr., a black man who was dragged behind a truck in Texas. ''I just want to have the feeling that I've made the world a better place,'' Pierre-Antoine said.
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