Hidden Figures

A picture says a thousand words, but senior criminal justice student Cheri Walker-Owens has set out to prove that’s only half the story.

As a student in the Ron and Laura Strain Honors College at the University of Indianapolis, Cheri Walker-Owens ‘18 took on a senior project involving the complex practice of embedding hidden messages in an image file. By inserting undetectable bits of code into an electronic file, a message can be sent to a person who knows what to look for, while any outsiders are none the wiser that a message even exists.

“When I was in high school, I had no idea I would some day be studying something like this. When I tell my family and friends what I’m working on, they think I’m some kind of IT magician or something,” said Walker-Owens, whose criminal justice concentration is in cyber security.

Her project involves the ancient practice of steganography, which history tells us has been used in a variety of ways. Artist Leonardo Da Vinci used to embed hidden images in his paintings. In the Revolutionary War, spies often communicated by using hidden ink that only became visible when heated. In today’s technological world, steganography pops up in a variety of ways, which oftentimes can result in an infected computer or the sharing of confidential information.

Even more concerning, however, is the suspicion that terrorist networks are secretly communicating and recruiting members through the online sharing of images, websites and other digital files. For Walker-Owens, she can see the potential impact of her role in better understanding this process and how it may one day help make the country safer.

“I like the fact that I can use my abilities for a more fulfilling purpose, like stopping crime and helping people,” she said. “The goal is to know how to do this so we can know how to stop it.”

Similar to many other University of Indianapolis students, Walker-Owens came in as a freshman not sure what she wanted out of college and a career. After graduating from Christel House Academy in Indianapolis, she enrolled thinking she would be a police detective or maybe a prosecuting attorney. She credits the criminal justice program, as well as program director Kevin Whiteacre and Honors College Executive Director Jim Williams, with encouraging her to follow her passion and explore cyber security.

The flexibility of the criminal justice program allowed her to tailor her coursework toward her strengths and interests. Today, she looks forward to continuing her work in the cyber field, which is constantly evolving.

“It’s exciting to think I will be working in a field that will be helpful and contribute to the greater good,” she said.