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A Glimpse Into NCFI

As the third “anniversary” of our BCERT (Basic Computer Evidence Training ) class graduation from the National ComputerForensic Institute (NCFI) in Hoover, AL draws near, it dawned on me that since I’ve attended BCERT, I’ve received a number of inquiries about the course and about NCFI in general.  Being that available the information about NCFI is quite limited and there seem to be no real hands-on descriptions of the course, the facility or the surrounding area, I thought I’d provide a little insight into those areas for future prospective students of BCERT or any other course NCFI has to offer.

It should be noted that it has been 3 years since I’ve attended BCERT and NCFI, so it is quite possible some of these things have changed a bit.  And while I’ll often refer to BCERT as the benchmark for my comments, many of the same circumstances apply regardless of the course taught at NCFI.

Admission into the Course

I would never suggest that any one attend any digital forensic courses without first researching the content of the course and, if possible, who is teaching the course.  So prior to application into any courses at NCFI, do some homework. What are the prerequisites, if any? What are the core competencies that are covered?  How long is the course?  What is the cost and what do you get for that cost?  All of these considerations are key, but some of them, most notably cost, are not an issue with regard to NCFI.

If you don’t already know, the NCFI is operated by the US Secret Service.  Most of their programs are geared toward local and state law enforcement and evidence handlers.  In our BCERT class, there were no federal agents except the proctors for the class.  And while your local impression of the feds may not be the highest, I can assure you everyone at NCFI, not to mention everyone involved in the application process, was top-notch, down-to-earth and very cooperative.

To be accepted into NCFI, you first need the nomination of your local Secret Service Field Office.  And while the nomination itself is fairly simple, the selection process depends greatly on your geographical location and the worthiness your local Secret Service office places on computer forensics in general.  For example, if you are in the New York area, you may be competing with several others for slots in NCFI courses.  What’s more, if the SAIC of the New York Field Office isn’t a big believer in the local law enforcement ability to assist in their cases, they may not be very enthusiastic about your candidacy in the course(s). Conversely, if work nearest to the Anchorage, Alaska Field Office and your local SAIC is a vehement believer in the effectiveness of computer forensics, then you may have the opportunity to attend many courses by virtue of the fact that your competition is low and your support is high.

Mid-way through the selection process, a local agent will contact you and ask several basic questions and possibly have you sign a release to do a background investigation (I don’t remember a background being a part of my process, but a recent candidate told me it is now).  They’ll also ask you if you want to fly or drive to the facility.  If you are located within a reasonable driving distance to Hoover, AL, they will allow you to drive and reimburse your mileage at the going rate.  More on that later.

To say that there is no politics at play with regard to the selection process at NCFI would be naive.  Indeed, both a co-worker and I were selected for 2 different courses (BCERT and MDE) in great part because our agency had a very good relationship with a heavy-hitter in the ICAC world.  Regardless, your commitment to the digital forensic program and willingness to assist the Secret Service also play big roles in your acceptance.

The Give-and-Take

As mentioned earlier, one of the best selling points to police administration to allow their examiners and investigators to attend anywhere from 2-5 weeks in Hoover, Alabama on a working vacation is all of the expenses, training, materials and equipment are free and you bring them back to your agency at the completion of training.  For BCERT, this amounted to about $25,000 worth of equipment that a small, rural agency would probably not have been able to afford otherwise.  Add in the cost of training, travel, lodging, and per diem and it’s a very high-return, low investment relationship for most agencies.

So what does  the Secret Service get in return?  Your agency head must sign an MOU agreeing that, for a period of 36 months: 1) they will allow you (the examiner) to assist on any US Secret Service digital forensic cases, as needed and 2)  if the individual candidate leaves the agency within the 36 months, all of the equipment will be returned to the Secret Service.  After the 36 month period, the equipment is turned over to the inventory of the candidate’s agency.  See, that’s not s bad, is it?  I can honestly say that in the time I was employed by my agency after attending BCERT, I was never called upon by the Secret Service to help out on an examination, but I was able to use the equipment & training to become a better examiner on several cases and put some pretty bad suspects in prison for a long time.

Getting there & Living there

In case you don’t know, BCERT is one of NCFI’s longer courses.  It encompasses 5 weeks of fairly intensive study covering basic computer hardware, file systems, all sorts of useful forensic artifacts and highlights of the two primary forensic tools on the market (at the time), EnCase and FTK (Forensic ToolKit).  Other courses are not quite as long, but may be just as intense. Regardless, the format is the same.  NCFI, via your local Secret Service office, will arrange your travel to and from Hoover (Birmingham), AL, and a shuttle to and from the airport on your arriving and departing days.  They provide lodging at one of two nearby hotels of suites wherein you have a fully functional kitchen, full-size refrigerator and a living room area (as well as bed and bathroom) to yourself.  They also provide a shuttle to and from class every day for those who chose not to drive.  The shuttle will also provide transportation to shopping venues, dinner outings, leisure activities on the weekend, etc.

The hotel where we stayed not only provided breakfast every morning and dinner every night, but for two hours had an open bar, providing beer & wine from 5-7 pm during the week. They did not have a very large gym on-site, so they contracted with a nearby gym for use of their facilities for longer-term residents.

Some of the notable reimbursements that took place within the first week at NCFI were the mileage (I chose to drive from Virginia to Alabama) and per diem for meals.  I don’t recall the specific amount allotted for per diem, but I do recall getting a very large check toward the beginning of week 2 which was nice.  There is no tracking of the per diem expenditures, just a flat rate multiplied by however many days you’re in the training and a direct deposit issued into your account.  As the course goes along, you are also reimbursed for laundy/dry cleaning expenses.   A brief caveat about the mileage, however – DO NOT ask for reimbursement for mileage if you are driving a government vehicle.  There’s a word for that: fraud.

I’ll say that it appeared to me that the folks at NCFI set all of this up to make a 5-week stay away from home as pleasant as possible for us.  I will also add that I was glad I drove my own vehicle because it allowed me a little more freedom of movement in the evenings and on the weekends.  I would recommend driving, unless you’re attending the course from Anchorage, Alaska.

There are several local highlights in the Hoover area, if you are interested.  Naturally, the entire region is known for great golf courses, but cops love food and the food scene is actually pretty darn good there, too.  Three standouts in my mind were theCajun Steamer in Hoover, Flip Burger Boutique in Birmingham and Saw’s Barbecue in Homewood.  Cajun Steamers is a no-frills Cajun place that serves up Creole food by the pound, some of it family-style  Authentic and fun, we had a great time as a huge group of us went there for dinner early on in the class and it was a great ice-breaker to get to know some people aside from the classroom setting.  Flip burger was a gem that two compadres and I found in the Summit Mall in Birmingham.  The Mall itself is pretty high-class, but Flip Burger is a futuristic-looking diner with an amazing variety of burgers, sides & shakes (my favorite was the Chorizo burger).  We went there several times once we found it and I’m definitely going back if I ever get into the area again.  Finally, Saw’s barbecue is a legendary BBQ joint that is only open for lunch. They cook a set amount for the day and once they’re out of food, they’re done.  We tried to pull up their website before we went, but it seemed to have been hijacked by Ruskies (not joking), so when we got there, we told the owner and he thanked us with a heaping sampler platter.  As if the portions weren’t big enough already, we were treated with some of the most succulent smoked meats I’ve ever eaten.  Simply delicious.  Sadly, we found out about this hot spot on the very last full day of class, so no return trips for yours truly.

Aside from food, the Talladega International Speedway is not far, as well as the Barber Motorsports Park & Museum.  The Museum is legendary and consists of 4 floors of motor vehicles from all eras.  From early to modern, WWI, WWII, motorcycles, race cars… you name it, they have it (see pictures below).  It’s a great place to burn a random Saturday while you’re there. Barber also offers a motorsports experience, which we did not partake in because we were all cheap, destitute cops.  Other fairly nearby attractions are the NASAMarshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, the University of Alabama and other attractions in Birmingham.  I have to say, I was hoping to find a good Irish pub in downtown Birmingham, but could not.  In fact, downtown Birmingham was somewhat disappointing overall.  But in general, I was pleased with the variety of things to do in an area I had frankly never heard of before.

The Course(s)

Now here’s where I’m going to mainly concentrate on BCERT in that it was my only exposure to NCFI thus far.  BCERT is 5 weeks long.  The course is designed to take the novice and mold them into a competent computer forensic examiner using some industry standard tools.  On day 1, we were provided our brand new 17″ Macbook Pro laptops, a full copy of Windows 7 Ultimate and the MS Office Suite. We were guided through the Bootcamp process to install Windows onto the Macbooks and that was about all we did with the Macs the entire time.  They are provided simply to have access to forensic tools in the field, for conducting evidence triage, etc.  Some of the other equipment & tools we were provided were:

  •  Tableau Forensic Ultrakit in Pelican case (full assortment of write-blockers & adapters)
  • A basic tool kit suitable for working on computers
  •  Full 2-year licenses for EnCase, Xways and FTK
  •  A digital camera for scene documentation
  • Two large manuals for the course
  • Backpack & tackle box for storage & portability
  • Monitor, keyboard, etc. for FRED (Forensic Recovery of Evidence Device)
  •  *Digital Intelligence FRED – complete with Windows 7 Ultimate, 6TB RAID array, several hot-swap bays, Tableau ultra bay, USB 3.0 ports, 16 Gb of RAM installed (upgradable to 32) and two internal HDDs.  Several additional internal HDDs were provided for storage as well.

o   *I have been told our class was (one of) the last in which NCFI was issuing the Digital Intelligence FRED machines and has since switched to Mac towers, but that is unconfirmed at this point

All in all, I estimate around $25,000 worth of equipment & software.  Not bad for “free”!  At the end of the course, you may arrange to ship the equipment to your agency (at USSS cost) or, if you drove, you can haul the equipment back with you.  Bear in mind, that the USSS tracks all of the costly equipment and maintains an inventory of who has what and where for the entire 36 months.  In the following year after BCERT, they made two trips to my agency for the purposes of inventory, so don’t lose, lend, sell or otherwise misplace any of the expensive stuff.

The course itself is broken down into two parts. The first part is two weeks and quite intense.  It starts with setup of the forensic box, basic computer components (with a practical) and dives right into file systems, bits, bytes etc.  The first two weeks ends with a written exam, which requires some study and isn’t a total piece of cake.  I’ll freely admit I should have studied more. Allegedly, if you do not pass the written exam with a minimum score, you are sent home, although no one in my class was sent home.  After the conclusion of the first two weeks, the class lets out early on Friday and you are afforded the opportunity to fly/drive home (at your expense) to meet your loved ones for a little bit longer weekend.

Weeks 3 and 4 are divided almost evenly by working hands-on in FTK and EnCase.  Our lead instructor was Glynn LeBlanc, a former Deputy & Investigator from Louisiana who is extremely knowledgeable about forensics in general and FTK in specific. NCFI has/had a contract with AccessData to provide a good part of the training, so to say the weeks were evenly divided between FTK and EnCase is somewhat inaccurate, but I found the added time with FTK useful because I was already a primary EnCase user.  The tools are covered in fairly decent detail (as much as you can in 1 week) and the final week is a series of practical exercises, some group and some individual.  It culminates in a practical exercise wherein the class participants have to work a forensic case from seizure through reporting.  It’s not overly difficult, but it is something you should concentrate on, pay attention to and use the build-up practical exercises earlier in the week to prepare for.  I would imagine it may take more time and effort to complete for the novice than for the experienced examiner, but if memory serves, they give you around 2 days to complete it.

The Intructors & Staff

Like I said, NCFI contracts with AccessData, but also has other instructors come in to assist for part or all of the course.  Glynn LeBlanc was our lead instructor and did an outstanding job.  Rob Andrews was our civilian representative and took his fair share of ribbing for never having been a cop, but he is also an extremely knowledgeable instructor and a helluva guy.  At last check, Rob still teaches the NITRO (Network Intrusion) Course at NCFI and may also be assisting with BCERT. Glynn has moved on as Director of Training at NUIX and, while he still stays in touch with our class as a group, he does not teach at NCFI currently.

For a very long time prior to and during our course, Alex Monsma was the Secret Service Agent coordinating all of the classes at NCFI. Alex was a wealth of knowledge about anything you wanted to know with regard to the area, activities, administrative issues and, of course, restaurants.  I was told recently that Alex had to rotate up to the DC area for his Executive Protection assignment, so I’m not sure who is coordinating the activities at NCFI currently.  The rest of the staff should be the same and are also very helpful and friendly.

The other benefit to classes like BCERT are the proctors. We had several USSS Special Agents proctor our course during the 5 weeks and most of them were not only knowledgeable, but just fun guys to hang out with.  One in particular was from the Chicago area and when I went to Chicago some time later, he was able to guide me into Wrigley Field on my badge, which was great.  I always feel sorry for those guys when stories come out about extra-curricular behavior at the Secret Service because I have honestly not met a USSS Agent I didn’t like and for a time, I even aspired to join their ranks, but I got too old (37).

Wrapping it Up (finally)

All in all, I thought my time at NCFI was an amazing opportunity coupled with some very solid, worthwhile instruction.  Top it off with some “free” equipment, great food and making some good friends, it was very well worth it. While I’m sure 5 weeks away from my family (we did have a weekend together in there) wasn’t a great time for my wife, I’m grateful for her support in letting me go to BCERT.  And while 5 weeks is certainly a long time, I would say that one needs almost twice that to get a real grip on what digital forensics is, how to incorporate it into different cases and where it’s going.  Unfortunately I’m not in law enforcement currently, but I would see it as an honor and a privilege to return to NCFI for any of their other courses.

Check out their online catalog here and feel free to email me any questions or comments, especially if you have updated information with regard to equipment, software, etc. that would be helpful for readers of this article. It’s my hope that the programs continue to grow and perhaps incorporate some instruction on other tools such as Xways Forensics because of growing popularity in the field.  Regardless, everything I learned at BCERT still serves me well today and I’m grateful for the instruction and relationships I’ve built through participation in the course.

Author:
Patrick J. Siewert, SCERS, BCERT, LCE
Owner, Lead Forensic Examiner
Professional Digital Forensic Consulting, LLC
Based in Richmond, Virginia

Available Globally

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