Jibran Ilyas (CDM ’05), managing director of the digital forensics and digital response team at Stroz Friedberg.

Learn how a DePaul alumnus fights cybercrime

Think of the crime scenes you see in “CSI” or “Psych:”  yellow tape sectioning off the area, flashing cameras and investigators jotting down notes. That’s not actually what happens when digital forensics expert Jibran Ilyas (CDM ’05) investigates data hacks, but he’s just as relentless as any Hollywood detective trying to solve a case.

Ilyas, managing director of the digital forensics and incident response practice at the risk management firm Stroz Friedberg (an Aon company), and his team of digital forensics experts first have to kick the hackers out of the network.

“We have to be very strategic, because we’re kind of playing a game of chess with the attackers, if you will. They don’t want to be detected, but we don’t want to be detected right away either because they will adjust their tactics,” Ilyas explains. “We have to think 10 moves ahead, just like in chess.”

As Ilyas races to defeat the hackers, his team creates an attacker profile of technical indicators of the hackers’ behaviors and activity. The profile shows the victim or company what signs of hacking to look for in the future.

According to Ilyas, the process typically takes anywhere from two days to a couple of weeks. While the work can be stressful and frustrating, Ilyas lives for it.

“When we get a new case, we thrive on the opportunity. We know we’re going to get to learn something new because either the hackers have started something [we haven’t seen before] or we investigate a new kind of technology,” Ilyas says. “We’re like the kids in a candy store.”

Ilyas, who was named one of Crain’s Chicago Business’ “40 Under 40” last year, is the youngest managing director at Stroz Friedberg. Although he says he’s constantly learning from new cases, he enjoys sharing his knowledge with junior members in the practice. Ilyas also teaches at Northwestern University. “I’m most proud of passing on knowledge and making new rock stars at my own company and also preparing university students,” he says.

Despite where he teaches, Ilyas is a true Blue Demon at heart. He followed his brother, Imran Ilyas (CDM MS ’00), to DePaul and declared a major in computer science. During his undergraduate years, all of his music was hacked and stolen from the Napster application on his computer. Ilyas, who had no prior knowledge of digital forensics, fought to get his music back.

Even though he spent many sleepless nights panicked about his lost music, Ilyas enjoyed what he was doing and, after successfully recovering his files, found the experience rewarding. He discovered that the School of Computing offered classes in network security and switched his major to network technologies. Ilyas credits J.P. Labruyere, senior professional lecturer, for making a huge impact on his career.

“He made us work a lot in his course, and one of the things he taught me was stamina. You need that in the network security field,” Ilyas reflects. “His teaching style was very effective. He made us have a sense of accomplishment, and he didn’t spoon-feed us.”

At DePaul, Ilyas founded the Pakistani Student Association (PSA) and served as its president for two years. The organization quickly gained in popularity. In fact, it was through PSA that Ilyas met his wife, Samra Cheema (CSH ’09). He is quick to emphasize how important DePaul has been in his life.

“The experiences at DePaul gave me confidence. I learned that if I just put my mind on something and give a sincere effort, I will get what I want, which is a pretty big thing in my life,” he says. “And I know exactly where it came from.”

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