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Professor Researches How to Find Hackers, Process Data Quickly

Clay Shields

Clay Shields, professor of computer science and director of the Georgetown Institute for Information Assurance (GIIA), describes computer forensics as "kind of like a war game." Photo courtesy of Clay Shields.

March 22, 2012 – Professor Clay Shields researches large-scale computer forensic examinations and uses hacking to find out how hackers hack.

He also researches how to faster process large amounts of data recovered from a criminal investigation and explores the ways in which network security and user identity are connected.

“When your computer’s on a network, it uses an IP address to communicate,” says Shields, who joined the computer science department in 2001. “I was interested in how to hide your IP address if you were doing something for which you wanted your identity to remain private.”

Outsmarting Hackers

“At the same time, I wanted to know how people who were breaking into computers and doing bad things could hide their IP addresses so we could figure out who they are, too,” he adds.

To outsmart criminals who seek access to restricted networks, Shields has to think like a hacker.

Subterfuge runs in his family – his grandfather, Edward M. Collins (G’56, G’66), was the deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency in the early 1980s, and his father, Vincent M. Shields, was an agent at the Central Intelligence Agency.

“It’s kind of like a war game,” Shields said of computer forensics. “You look at [a network] and think, ‘Hey, I can do this and make bad things happen,’ and then you say to yourself, ‘Well, how would I prevent that bad thing from happening? You play things back and forth, try to work out what can possibly go wrong and what you can do to fix it.”

An Early Start

Shields also serves as director for the Georgetown Institute for Information Assurance (GIIA), which is designed to provide leading-edge research and education in information assurance and related disciplines, including information security, privacy and computer crime and forensics.

He started programming in 7th grade.

“Developing a program is like solving a puzzle, but one in which you are free to create any solution that you like, and if the solution isn't working it is your fault,” he says. “Computers are amazing tools for the mind, and if you can program you can use it for exactly what you want instead of what the folks at Microsoft thought you wanted.”

Computer Forensics

Shields realized early on in his academic career that defeating hackers required him to change his approach to computer science beyond networking to include personal identity and personal computing.

And he decided to learn more about computer forensics, a relatively new field of study that analyzes digital storage media for information useful to law enforcement.

“Say you did something bad and there’s a legitimate reason for police to come to your house with a warrant and take your computer,” Shields explained. “Computer forensics is investigating what’s left on the computer that would support or refute some hypothesis about what you had been doing.”

Computers are Cool

Shields introduces his first-year students to the basics of computer software and programming and teaches seniors how to implement operating system design concepts.

“I just think computers are really cool, so I try to share that with my students,” Shields said. “When it comes down to classes, I want to show them how a computer works and let them make it do what they want it to do.”

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