CS Bits & Bytes is a bi-weekly newsletter highlighting innovative computer science research. It is our hope that you will use CS Bits & Bytes to engage in the multi-faceted world of computer science to become not just a user, but also a creator of technology. Please visit our website at: http://www.nsf.gov/cise/csbytes.

May 21, 2012
Volume 1, Issue 12

Fighting Cyber Crime

Did you know? Globally, there are over 14.5 billion spam messages sent every day. Spam—the practice of sending large quantities of unwanted email to a set of indiscriminate recipients—is not only a nuisance but is also responsible for billions of dollars in revenue losses. Most spam is sent from “zombie networks,” or virus-infected computer networks, in the form of emails, instant messages, online games, blogs, etc.  You name it, and spam can fake it.

Spam is usually used as a distribution tool for advertising, malware (i.e., malicious software such as viruses or spyware), or phishing attacks. Phishing is an attempt to acquire sensitive information such as usernames, passwords, and credit card information online by masquerading as a legitimate webpage, often through deceptive emails.

Securing cyberspace and protecting individuals from malicious spam and phishing requires multi-disciplinary expertise in human, statistical, mathematical, computational, and computer sciences. Technical advances in computing and communication, combined with improved understanding of how individuals and organizations comprehend and use technology and how economic and policy incentives affect adoption of technology are needed.



Watch this video to learn about the UAB Research Experiences for Undergraduate and Teachers: http://main.uab.edu/Sites/MediaRelations/articles/78604/

A group of undergraduate students from colleges across the country worked closely with social and computer scientists at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) to develop a new computer program designed to identify the location of hackers online and to monitor their discussion forums. The group obtained a large computer file containing the contents of a cyber crime group’s database. The students were tasked with sorting through all of the text to look for information that could be relevant for law enforcement. The students wrote programs in Ruby to extract URLs and email addresses from the database. They then wrote additional programs to "look at" the images on the webpages located at the URLs. Through their work, the team of students was able to determine the leaders and key contributors of the cyber crime group. This task isn't easy on it's own, but what it made it even more difficult is that the source database was not formatted at all and was completely in German! Even though no one on the team knew German, they were able to write programs that could extract and analyze the data appropriately, to find the criminals.

REU Cohort

REU Students at UAB. Credit: Dr. Kent Kerley, Program Director, UAB Crime REU.

How do undergraduate students get involved in this research? The National Science Foundation's Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Site program provides undergraduate students the opportunity to conduct hands-on research in institutions across the country. The REU site at UAB includes an intensive 8-week summer research program with three tracks—computer forensics, criminal justice, or forensic science.  Projects range from identifying chemicals in legally purchased drugs online, analyzing the presence of cocaine on currency, studying the recovery process of drug-addicted women in a transitional center, to identifying the origins of spam email.

Sarah Turner

UAB Crime REU Participant Sarah Turner. Credit: Steve Wood, UAB Office of Public Relations and Marketing.

Spotlight! As an undergraduate student at UAB, Sarah Turner, was part of a research team that designed a computer program to find not only suspects of online criminal activity, but also the probable ringleaders of a cyber crime organization. Sarah is currently a graduate student in UAB’s Masters of Science in Computer Forensics and Security Management program. After she graduates in Spring 2013, she plans to continue to fight cyber crimes and is especially interested in fighting those aimed at women and children.  In her spare time, Sarah likes to canoe, walk trails, read, and spend time with her husband and pets.



To learn more about how to get involved with a NSF REU site as an undergraduate student, please visit: http://www.nsf.gov/crssprgm/reu/index.jsp.  

To learn more about the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Crime Research Experiences for Undergraduates, see: http://www.cis.uab.edu/UABCrimeREU.

A new website developed by the Computing Community Consortium (CCC), called CS URGE (CS Undergraduate Research and Graduate Education), also includes links for undergraduates seeking summer research opportunities. See: http://cra.org/ccc/csurge.



This activity is designed to help students realize how easy it is to be fooled on the Internet.

Show students the images below and then use the questions to lead a discussion:

Activity Image One - High Resolution

Activity Image Two - High Resolution


Classroom Activity

Only one of these webpages is real. Can you tell which one?

How do you spot a fraud email or webpage?

What should you do once you realize that the webpage you are on or the email you are viewing is fraudulent?