Uni student tries to crack encryption

Canadian police have turned to a University of Otago student to help crack the encryption on a suspected fraudster's hard drive.

Canadian police have turned to a University of Otago student to help crack the encryption on a suspected fraudster's hard drive.

Local police arrested the suspect and took possession of two computers last year - one of which was encrypted - after the Royal Canadian Mounted Police told them the suspect had fled here from Canada.

New Zealand police turned to the University of Otago’s associate professor Hank Wolfe and his students. One of his third-year students, Roland MacKenzie, has been working on the hard drive in his spare time for several months, debugging the code line by line.

Wolfe hopes MacKenzie is close to cracking it.

"The first thing people who are not familiar with this business want is for you to break the code because they've seen a pimply-faced kid on TV do it in 10 minutes.”

Wolfe initially explained to police that it would not be that easy, but they were keen for him to investigate and sent down an evidentiary copy.

"They … said 'if you get something, fine and if not, nothing lost' and I said we'd give it a shot."

Wolfe discussed the hard drive with a group of colleagues and they decided the only way to go about cracking the drive was to reverse engineer it.

"I haven't worked with assembly language for a long time so it's not my game but Roland MacKenzie was in the office at the time and he said 'ooh, I'd like to do that one, let me have a try’."

Wolfe says they believe they have found two backdoors.

“Programmers sometimes leave a backdoor in software for themselves - it's quite common … We're working on those at the moment."

Wolfe says the programmer who wrote the encryption software isn't making life easy for MacKenzie.

"The programmer who wrote this was very good and he's covered his tracks by using self-modifying code so we can't use a disassembler - he's got to use it one line at a time using debug. It's tedious work."

Wolfe won't name the encryption software that was used, but says it is a commercially available product. Should MacKenzie break the code, Wolfe says they won't publish a public document with the detail, but will make it available to the police should they ever come across such a problem again.

Wolfe has worked in the computer forensic world for many years and regularly travels and lectures on the subject in places as diverse as Poland, Australia and at West Point, the US military academy.

MacKenzie was unavailable for comment.

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