Carla Morales

Carla Morales

Carla Morales wants to patch the holes in “Swiss cheese”.

The Indiana State University senior from Downers Grove, Illinois isn’t a culinary connoisseur. She’s a technical wizard who is passionate about helping others protect their digital data from cybercrime.

Her dream job is “penetration testing,” a practice that assesses companies’ cyber security and attempts to identify weaknesses in their system defenses.  “You go in physically to see how accessible their computers or other systems are,” Morales explained. “Then you try to find security flaws in their software, try to trick employees into clicking on those phishing emails we all get. At the end, you provide a big report on what the company needs to do to not be a victim.”

“One thing that gets thrown at us in some of our classes is the ‘Swiss cheese model.’ There’s always going to be holes in the system that you’re trying to repair or cover up. You’re just trying to lessen the damage, to make it more difficult or less rewarding.”

Technology and the problems plaguing it have always fascinated Morales. Throughout high school, she realized that cybercrime paired well with her fascination with the criminal justice system. This combination ultimately led her to Indiana State University, where she is pursuing a double major: criminology and criminal justice and cybercriminology and security studies, with a concentration in cybercrime. She is also earning minors in forensic investigations, law enforcement evidence, and corrections.

“Other schools are starting cybersecurity programs, but it doesn’t encompass the criminology aspect. A couple of schools told me it was a weird thing to combine, but ISU had it and was a good fit,” she said.

Concerned about affording college, Morales explored Indiana State’s online program. “We have servers in the cyber lab, so you’re still able to practice all the same things as if you were physically here on campus,” she said.

Thanks to the Warren M. Anderson Scholarship, though, Morales was able to live her dream of studying on campus. Morales is a first-generation college student. Her parents immigrated to find a home in the United States, and her heritage helped her find a home on campus through the Hispanic Latino Alliance and Gamma Phi Omega, a newly-incorporated sorority celebrating all women, but especially those of Hispanic heritage.

“At the time, I had been debating whether ISU was the right place for me,” Morales explained. “Finding the Hispanic Latino Alliance and joining was honestly one of the reasons that I did end up staying because I felt that I had people who could relate to some of the stuff that I was going through.  I definitely think that the people are some of the best things at State.”

Now, Morales fosters the same sense of community for students interested in preventing cybercrime as president of the new CyberSycamores Club. The club is open to all majors and seeks to extend learning beyond the classroom to case studies and competitions.

“I want to make it known that we’re here, we know what we’re doing, and just show some of the other schools that we have some pretty good students here and we are here to learn,” she said. “It’s helping me step out of my shell and use a lot of those soft skills you don’t necessarily develop as someone who typically works behind a computer. Ideally, our members will feel a lot more confidence in these topics that might seem intimidating.”

CyberSycamores isn’t the only opportunity the Honors student has had to test her prowess in real-world situations. Throughout her classes, Morales has been able to utilize software used by digital forensic investigators to analyze actual cases. Additionally, Morales is the secretary for Lambda Alpha Epsilon, the professional criminology fraternity on campus. The organization hosts guest speakers and networking opportunities for students to explore the field.

Morales is also one of three Sycamores chosen for a digital forensic internship during the 2021-2022 academic year. The internship is a result of collaboration between the Vigo County Prosecutor’s Office, the ISU School of Criminology and Security Studies, the Terre Haute Police Department, and the Vigo County Sheriff’s Office.

Morales and the other interns, Courtney Hughes and Christinea Winesberry, will have law enforcement powers while on duty under the supervision of a law enforcement officer. They will aid in recovering and reviewing evidence from digital devices for investigations and prosecutions in Vigo County.

“I’m excited to get more hands-on experience,” she said. “Eventually, I think I will work for either a law enforcement agency or a company that consults for law enforcement, so it’ll be nice to get some of the ‘behind-the-scenes’ stuff, like report writing or handling evidence.”

Morales and the other interns will sift through data, including that from officer body cams and cell phone towers, and will testify in court hearings. She was sworn in as a digital forensic investigator for the Vigo County Prosecutor’s Office on April 15, a learning experience that will eventually help her land dream career of patching the holes in digital Swiss cheese.