They entered the competition late in the game, but Robin Jackson and Ed Williams were pretty confident about their chances. Though they are state employees by day, their spare time is spent in cyberspace, acting as ethical computer hackers. Or, for those familiar with the terminology, as “white hats” — the good guys of the cyber world.
That experience, and about 360 hours of work, landed them first- and third-place rankings in this year’s international Digital Forensics Challenge, an Internet-based competition through which teams or individuals rack up points by uncovering information hidden within the digital recesses of computers. The annual contest, which started in 2006, is organized through the Department of Defense’s Cyber Crime Center, an agency that works to analyze data from electronic devices to aid in investigations related to everything from criminal matters to counterintelligence efforts.
Though competition participants are given a year to work through the challenges, Jackson and Williams only learned about it with two months to spare. So they got to work, spending several hours a day problem-solving and swapping ideas, either in person or through a shared folder they could both access online. They relied on the knowledge they’d acquired from decades working on computers, along with some free tools and information available over the Internet.
“Google is wonderful,” Jackson said.
That 66-day hacking spree earned them a total of 1,470 points from the judges — about 150 points short of where they predicted they’d be. That ranked them in first place among 29 teams from the United States and third place out of all 71 participating teams from across the globe, falling behind a couple of entries from South Korea.
The Montana duo’s high placements earned them two different awards — the International Council of Electronic Commerce Consultants’ Civilian Prize and the coveted DC3 Prize, which grants them a trip to the Department of Defense’s 2011 Cyber Crime Conference.
When Jackson and William got the news Wednesday, they had a hard time believing it.
“It kind of blew our minds, actually,” Jackson said.
He said it could heighten their credibility among the network of computer hackers they’re in regular contact with.
“I think we just went up a level in the community,” he said.
Jackson, a bureau chief for the state Department of Labor and Industry’s Employment Relations division, and Williams, a programmer for the department, had been friends prior to their decision to enter the competition, often doing “hacker stuff” together. They named their team Williams Twins Forensics, after Williams’ daughters.
The tasks they faced through the course of the competition fell into five different levels of difficulty. The easiest included the likes of finding files that had been deleted or tracking down the original names of files. The hardest involved writing programming code to acquire specified information off a computer.
With the 2011 round of the Digital Forensics Challenge starting in a couple of weeks, Jackson and Williams are gearing up for another go. This time, they’re hoping to get help from some other experts. Jackson thinks they have a shot at beating the South Koreans.
When they’re not playing the game, Jackson and Williams work to combat issues caused by hackers with harmful intentions — individuals creating computer viruses or altering websites. They view current events, like the recent WikiLeaks scandal and its aftermath, through their computers, constantly communicating with others in the cyber world. And they’ve formed some strong opinions, speaking of generational differences between younger hackers and themselves. Jackson, for example, is skeptical of those who would release government secrets.
It’s an issue he can continue discussing with like-minded individuals. He and Williams meet regularly with other computer whizzes in the area, often at the Staggering Ox, and conduct business even when they aren’t traveling with laptops.
“I’m talking to hackers right now,” Jackson said, staring down at his Android phone.
Reporter Allison Maier: 447-4075 or firstname.lastname@example.org