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Training Cybersleuths

Former FBI agent Mark Pollitt, ’13, is building a cybersecurity workforce.

“One of the biggest problems with cybersecurity is that we don’t have an adequate, trained workforce.”

In 1987, a fellow agent handed then-FBI special agent Mark Pollitt an 8-inch floppy disk.

“He asked, ‘Do you know what this is, and can you tell me what’s on it?’” recalls Pollitt, now a professor of engineering technology at Daytona State College.

“Digital forensics, which I call CSI for geeks, is a matter of looking at computer systems and networks to determine the who, what, when, where, how and why of things happening,” Pollitt explains.

His initial experience led to a slew of other cases involving digital forensics — investigations into white-collar crime, organized crime and some of the first cases of online child pornography. Pollitt’s interest in this emerging field eventually put him at the forefront of the agency’s computer forensics unit, and led to him becoming director of the Regional Computer Forensics Laboratory.

“One of the things I learned from my father is that when you get to a new job, see what isn’t being done, then do it,” says Pollitt. “When I got in the FBI, I realized they had a dearth of technology and virtually no folks with much of a technological background. I quickly became the go-to guy for technology stuff.”

Pollitt and his research partner, Daytona State College Associate Professor Philip Craiger, were recently awarded a $1.6 million, four-year grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to train college faculty to teach digital forensics and establish new programs for cybersecurity, and create programs to interest students in grades K–12 in pursuing careers in digital forensics. They were also involved in creating the master’s program in digital forensics at UCF, one of 12 schools in the country to offer such a program.

A 2012 survey found that more than 20 percent of federal government cybersecurity workers are eligible for retirement in the next three years. “The security of our computers and networks is critical,” Pollitt says. “One of the biggest problems with cybersecurity is that we don’t have an adequate, trained workforce.” Cybercriminals are responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars in stolen data, according to a 2009 White House report.

Pollitt first visited UCF on a grant to work at the National Center for Forensic Science. After his retirement from the FBI, he consulted and taught as a security expert before teaching as a visiting professor at UCF. He was later accepted into the College of Arts and Humanities’ Texts and Technology (T&T) Ph.D. program.

“I came to the T&T program because it was advertised as interdisciplinary,” Pollitt says. “During my time at the FBI, forensic science focused on the traditional computer science approach. The problem was that our customers were investigators who focused on the narrative, which traditional approaches don’t address.”

Pollitt says his background in investigations meshed well with the humanities approach in the T&T program. “What digital forensics forces you to do is think about security in a human context. It’s not the threats that do us harm; it’s the people behind the threats. And, by extension, it’s not the computer systems that get hurt; it’s the users of the computer systems.”

As part of the NSF grant, Pollitt and Craiger have formed partnerships with schools in four states to establish cybersecurity training programs. The schools will work to build a larger network of digital forensics trainers and programs in the Southeast.

The grant marks the first time the NSF has financially supported digital forensics, according to Pollitt. “I can remember going to meetings at NSF as an FBI representative and saying that this is the kind of research we need for digital forensics,” he recalls. “So, it’s pretty amazing that 10 years later, I’m doing it.”