A+ crime solving: Thomas Jefferson High School's computer forensics team performs strongly in New York

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Even if Sherlock Holmes had access to a computer, he might have trouble keeping up with the crime-solving capabilities of a trio of Thomas Jefferson High School students.

Seniors Chris Ganas, Tim Becker and Andrew Tindall, all 17, recently participated in the high school forensics competition during New York University Polytechnic Institute's Cyber Security Awareness Week.

The students qualified for the all-expenses-paid trip by finishing among the top 14 high schools -- 12 from the U.S., two from the United Arab Emirates -- in the preliminary round.

"They staged a fake murder case, providing some basic clues as a starting point," Chris explained. The students used computer forensics, such as finding passwords, to gather evidence, and the report they submitted in October got them selected as finalists from among 1,600 schools in the competition.

They did not place among the top schools for the Nov. 15 finals. But all participants gained the attention of the major sponsors for Cyber Security Awareness Week events, including Facebook, Qualcomm, Raytheon and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, potential employers all.

"The cybersecurity industry is really going strong," said Frank Staffen, Thomas Jefferson math and computer science teacher, who served as the students' mentor.

"It seems to be the wave of the future. There's a big demand out there for this."

Mr. Staffen said that Chris, Tim and Andrew took Advanced Placement computer science as sophomores, but that is the highest level offered at the school. So as juniors, they decided to continue their education by participating in a Carnegie Mellon University's hacking competition for high school students.

The competition, held in the spring, involved participants finding hidden clues in digital files or computer systems. The Thomas Jefferson students finished third.

Their team, Persistent Party Programmers, was one of only three to solve all the problems, but two others finished in less time.

"It was an incredible experience, very difficult," said Chris, noting that they spent up to 10 or 12 hours each solving some of the problems, which became increasingly more difficult as the competition progressed.

Following up on their success, the students decided to enter the Cyber Security Awareness Week competition, the rules of which help explain the difference between hacking and forensics:

"Please do not attack any NYU Poly or CSAW HSF infrastructure. This is not a hacking competition, but rather a forensics competition. You will need to perform analysis to find the answer, not exploit and attack."

The International Council of E-Commerce Consultants explains forensics further: "investigators can draw on an array of methods for discovering data that reside in a computer system, or recovering deleted, encrypted or damaged file information, known as computer data recovery."

Those who know what they're doing in that regard should be in demand, as the government and private industry seek to protect their investments. And the students are well aware of the potential.

"I've actually been interested in computer security for half a year now," Tim said.

"Doing a cyberforensics competition kind of reinforced that."

Harry Funk, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.

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