EdCC students heal hearts with digital data

By Laura Daniali | Jun 05, 2014
Photo by: Laura Daniali A group of Edmonds Community College students from the Computer Information Security and Digital Forensics program are helping victims of the Oso mudslide recover digital data from items found in the slide. Pictured from left to right are: Robert Matthews, Quincy Powell and Donna Robeck standing in front of the clean room facility at EdCC.

For those recovering from the tragic mudslide in Oso, access to food, clothing and shelter are among the most immediate and necessary needs for survival.

However, to help heal the hearts of Oso victims, Edmonds Community College students are offering a volunteer service to recover digital data from items found in the mudslide.

Students from the EdCC High Technology Crime and Investigation Association (HTCIA) student chapter are using the skills they are learning in digital forensics and cyber crime classes to recover digital data, such as photos and documents, from computers, hard drives, memory cards and other items found incased in mud in Oso.

Rob Matthews, an EdCC student and vice-president of the EdCC HTCIA chapter, approached fellow students and instructors with the idea of providing this service, and received an overwhelmingly positive response.

“I thought it was a great idea,” instructor Steve Hailey said, “but it was a unanimous decision by all of the folks that will be overseeing the data recovery activities – myself, Mike Andrew, Richard Leickly, and David Angell.”

Matthews initially had the idea over spring break. He lives in Arlington, and had to use the temporary road to Darrington a few times after the slide.

“That’s when it really set in,” Matthews said. “You couldn’t recognize anything. It was just mud and rocks.

“It was crushing, because that was people’s lives out there.”

As he thought about the devastation in Oso, Matthews knew he wanted to help, but it would have to be in a non-monetary way.

That’s when he got creative, and realized he had the resources needed to help in a significant way.

“We have all these great minds,” Matthews said. “Why can’t we collaborate and put them together, and do something to help these families that have lost so much?”

EdCC is providing use of the clean room facilities, chemistry labs and all needed equipment, and the Washington state HTCIA will provide funds to purchase donor drives and parts, Hailey said.

About a dozen items have been brought back to the EdCC labs so far. Matthews has made several trips to Darrington to let people know about the service, and collect items.

He brings plastic tubs with him to submerge the items in, and he advises that if an item is wet, keep it in water.

One of the worst scenarios is when mud has dried and caked on a hard drive, he said.

“The nice thing about digital media is that it’s delicate,” Matthews said, “but it’s still strong.”

The items are in the process of triage and classification right now. Matthews said they have to physically open up the hard drives and determine if there is any silt, sand, mud, water or debris inside.

They submerge the items inside a “jewelry cleaner” of sorts mixed with chemicals to clean debris from the hard drives.

“It’s a painstaking process,” Matthews said, “but it’s going to be worth it.”

The process can take anywhere from a few weeks to a couple of months depending on the severity of the damage.

To protect the victims’ privacy, students are only looking for possible files that may be intact, and not actual photos or documents, Matthews said.

The main goal of the group is to recover the digital information and return it to the families, while utilizing some of the skills they have been taught.

“My motivation is simply to use my skills to help restore as much personal data to the victims as possible,” said Quincy Powell, a student and president of the EdCC HTCIA.

“There will be some educational gains made in practicing data recovery skills, but my honest feeling in the matter is that the deed is its own reward.”

Matthews hopes to return digital family photos of loved ones to the families. As a father of three young children, he said he has about 30,000 pictures stored on his computer, and would be devastated if they were lost.

“We want families to be able to start the healing process,” Matthews said.

Items are still being accepted, and the service is provided at no cost to the families.

“They’ve already endured enough,” Matthews said. “I’m hoping they will not be forgotten.”

For more information, contact Matthews at 425-760-7324, or email him at r.matthews1234@edmail.edcc.edu.


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