Review: MSc. Advanced Security and Digital Forensics

I decided to do the masters program at Edinburgh Napier University straight after completing my undergraduate degree – Cybersecurity and Forensics also at Napier. I felt that there were some areas which the undergraduate did not cover very well – mainly offensive security and binary exploitation. There are some other reasons why I stayed on, like already being in the groove of academic studying. Also the MSc. was accredited by the GCHQ and was qualified as GCHQ certified training. However, that accreditation has expired and the course is now accredited as certified training by the NCSC.

I was one of the very few that had stayed on from the bachelor while all of my peers went to start their careers. It felt a little strange because the campus was very familiar to me. All of my grades from my undergraduate degree I had to leave behind for the MSc. was a new beginning. It felt like going to a new university especially because I was meeting all sorts of new people that were also joining the MSc. However, I particularly enjoyed this because it meant that I could hear new stories of different routes that these people had taken into cyber security – rather than me who was simply introduced to it through the undergraduate program. Nevertheless, being familiar with the campus and a little bit on how things worked at Napier led me to volunteer to be the student representative for the 2019/20 year group.

Anyways, let’s hear a little bit about the course itself. The MSc. is made up of six taught modules which are taught in trimester one and two. Trimester three is made up of a self-directed dissertation which finishes off the degree. You will find more detailed descriptions of the classes here but I’ve also listed the six modules below. None of the modules required group work, which I think is interesting but that’s just the way it is.

Trimester 1:

  • Host Based Forensics
  • Security Audit and Compliance
  • Network Security

Trimester 2

  • Incident Response and Malware Analysis
  • Penetration Testing
  • e-Security

I was told by some faculty Napier and also recommended not to do the masters because they said that many modules are the same or already covered in the undergraduate. While this is true for Host Based Forensics, I do not agree with this in regard to the other modules. Sure, there are some similarities and I recognised some slides but overall the assessments were all different and as a whole the modules were new to me.

My Favourite Modules

For me it is pretty difficult to pick a single favourite module, I enjoyed most of them. I could write about all modules, but generally the bottom line is that they are all pretty good at teaching you new topics and having practical labs to build what you learned in class. However, I’d like to write about the two modules that really stood out to me, which are Security Audit and Compliance and Penetration Testing.

Security Audit and Compliance was a fantastic non-technical module and I wish that I could experience it again. It is taught by Peter who himself has worked within audit and compliance before moving into academia. His experience really shines in the content of his lectures and I thoroughly enjoyed attending his 9AM classes. We did not have any written exams for this module, we had two coursework reports to write. The first assignment was to discuss the relationship between security and privacy – and how these could cause issues to governance within an organisation. I found this assignment extremely thought provoking and enjoyable to research. The second assignment progressed further into compliance, more specifically incident response compliance. We were in a scenario of being a newly appointed CISO and we had to restructure the incident response policies, guidelines and procedures. The assignment delivered a management report on what our scenario company needs to look out for, and which incident response framework would apply the best to our organisation by comparing these frameworks. The second assignment was more challenging for me as I had never written a report aimed to management before – I guess this is a disadvantage of joining the MSc. straight from the undergraduate. I think overall, the reason I liked this module is because of the fantastic delivery and great assignments which really helped to build foundation skills required for the dissertation. These skills are of course finding research, and being able to critically evaluate those and document findings.

Penetration Testing was a great technical module delving into offensive security and to be honest was a main reason why I had joined the MSc, so it had a high expectation from me. The Penetration Testing module sets out to prepare you for the Penetration-Testing With Kali course. When I applied for the MSc, I did not have any plans to take PWK however found myself passing the exam shortly before the MSc. began. If you’re interested in hearing my experience, you can check that post out here. This gave me a really big advantage to be honest, but I liked that because it meant I could take the LinuxZoo Kali labs as further practice to solidify my knowledge, and also help others when they were struggling in the labs. You have to sit two class tests and deliver one research coursework for this. We had four options for the coursework, and I found all of those to be pretty broad. I liked that because it also gave some freedom on what specifically you want to research within the guidelines of course. This coursework had a six page (!!) limit, which was extremely challenging to adhere to. We are so used to writing ~4000 word reports for other modules, and suddenly we have to hold back to six pages – which is made tricky when you want to add diagrams or figures. Anyway, I also found that it helped a lot towards the dissertation writing style to avoid waffling and only add focussed content.

Facilities

The computing labs are pretty great. The machines are pretty strong, and you have two 24″ (I think?) monitors which are really nice to work with. The library is a little small for my liking, it gets filled up very quickly after about week 5 or 6 in the trimester – but you can get access to the main University of Edinburgh library if you want quiet study space through the SCONUL program. The lecture halls are alright, some are better than others with desks to sit at, or rows of benches.

Lectures are all recorded by the camera people who make sure to edit the videos and they were always uploaded to the online learning space within two days of the lecture. Recorded lectures are fantastic if you have an appointment which you cannot miss or you are late for whatever reason.

ENUSEC

Edinburgh Napier University Security (ENUSEC) is the cyber security society which has gotten pretty large over the past couple of years. Anyone can join if you’re interested in cyber security which is quite nice. The society does regular meet-ups in the main cyber security lab. Every now and then there will be a workshop which are usually fun practical sessions.

Improvements

In the penetration testing side of things, I wish that the university was more active in HackTheBox. There is a university team, but it is pretty much inactive. I also think that the LinuxZoo labs are a little outdated, and it can be buggy pretty often. I think that they could also setup some rooms in TryHackMe instead of LinuxZoo. To be honest I’d be willing to create some rooms, perhaps as additional content for the students if they are willing to use it.

For network security, we had troubles with the infrastructure to complete the coursework – it got overloaded pretty easily. I hope that they fix this for future cohorts!

For incident response and malware analysis I had hoped that there would have been some reverse engineering in the coursework assignment, rather than a memory dump without the pseudo malicious executable.

Closing Thoughts

As a whole, I enjoyed the Advanced Security and Digital Forensics at Edinburgh Napier University. I think that the lecturers are generally passionate about what they teach, and the learning material is pretty good. I had the opportunity to learn many new things, and build new skills not only in technical areas.

Having completed

  • 9 class tests
  • 7 coursework reports
  • 1 dissertation

and attending

  • ~ 350 hours of classes
  • ~ 5 class representative feedback meetings

I would say that I had an overall positive experience, and I would recommend this course to someone willing to delve further into cyber security – especially for those who are looking to transition into cyber security and do an MSc.

What’s Next?

I’ll be starting my career very soon as a cyber security consultant with part of the Big 4. I’m extremely excited for the challenges that are coming my way, I hope that I can apply what I have learned at Edinburgh Napier University to launch a successful start to my career.

There are endless paths to go down. There is so much knowledge out there to still absorb, with so many things to learn. I’m not too sure what the future holds ~10 or ~20 years down the line, but I’m sure it’ll be great.

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