by Sally Post
Collaborating to Address Cybersecurity Concerns
Texas Tech and Angelo State team up to increase cybersecurity training.
Through the program, TTU and ASU are hoping to increase cybersecurity knowledge so students are better prepared for the job market.
In a world where everything from small business records to the nation’s major financial networks and security systems is connected through computers, the risk of destruction or disruption from a natural disaster, cyberattack or cyberespionage has the nation’s top leaders calling for new security measures.
Along with finding ways to prevent or minimize cyberattacks, the country is faced with another crucial issue: Who will fill the thousands of jobs needed to protect our critical infrastructure?
Texas Tech University, in conjunction with Angelo State University, has received a $385,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to address the workforce needs by reaching out to community and private colleges in the West Texas area.
“By giving faculty at the region’s community and private colleges more training, we hope to increase the knowledge that is passed on to students and better prepare them for the job market,” said Akbar Namin, assistant professor in Texas Tech’s Department of Computer Science and principal investigator on the NSF grant.
Namin, who also is part of Texas Tech’s Center for the Science and Engineering of Cyber Security, reached out to the Center for Security Studies at Angelo State University, another component of the Texas Tech University System, to develop a professional development program for community and private college faculty.
“Dr. Namin’s proposal was a great fit for us,” said Robert Ehlers, director of the center. “Texas Tech’s computer science department is really skilled on the technical side. We are focused on the aggregate effects of cyberattacks and cyberespionage and how they affect the security and prosperity of the United States.”
“We are constantly under attack. In effect, this is the most common form of warfare, and our defense is dependent entirely on people with the skills to recognize and then prevent these incursions.”
– James Phelps
In August, about 15 community and private college faculty members came to the Texas Tech campus for a one-week summer workshop to learn how to integrate the latest cybersecurity information and research into their own curricula or to create new courses. A second workshop with 15 more community and private college faculty members will be held during summer 2014.
“Cybersecurity is a new field that is evolving quickly,” said Namin. “We realized that community college faculty and students may not have access to the latest research and thinking on cybersecurity. Our goal is to transmit as much of that knowledge as possible so that teachers can expand their courses, and students can be better prepared for the job market.”
The workshop participants determined how best to integrate the material presented into their own curriculum.
“The individual participants will know best how to use the material in their existing courses, or whether there is a possibility of creating a new course,” said Namin. “We’ll continue to work with them to develop strategies, and we’ll assess how they have transferred the material to their home institutions.”
The project team also hopes that the project will not only allow community and private colleges to provide the necessary education for certification tests, but also will spark an interest in students to continue their education for a bachelor’s or graduate degree in cybersecurity.
The 2013 Summer Cybersecurity Workshop was held Aug. 12-16. Participants received a $2,000 honorarium to cover housing and travel to Lubbock. The workshop focused on six areas: cybersecurity fundamentals, information and data security, network security, software security, smart grid security, and cyberevidence and forensics.
Meet the Experts
Akbar Siami-Namin is an assistant professor in TTU's Department of Computer Science and principal investigator on the NSF grant.
Robert Ehlers is professor of security studies and director of the Center for Security Studies at ASU.
James Phelps is an assistant professor of border and homeland security at ASU.
Rattikorn Hewett is professor and chair in the Department of Computer Science in the Whitacre College of Engineering at Texas Tech.
Cyber Job Market
Ehlers estimates there may be thousands of jobs going unfilled because of a lack of basic cybersecurity knowledge. From small businesses to international corporations, Ehlers believes there is a need for professionals who understand what he calls “the crucial basics” of cybersecurity: how a computer works when plugged into a network, what threats are present, what would those threats do to a network, and what do you do to protect the network.
Ehlers’ colleague in the Center for Security Studies, James Phelps, agrees. For him, the goal of the project is to give community and private college faculty the tools to teach the complexities of cybersecurity.
“There simply are not enough people with the necessary skills to meet the cybersecurity needs of our country,” said Phelps, an assistant professor of border and homeland security at ASU.
The skills needed now are very different from those needed a decade or two ago.
“Today everything is connected to a computer network,” said Ehlers. “Our power grids, banking industry, everything is integrated. It wasn’t that way 20 years ago. We see new threats and new attacks every day. We need professionals who understand the issues and can act to protect our networks.”
Computer systems around the world are continually under attack, being probed thousands of times an hour by traditional hackers who may be looking to steal personal information as well as by individuals intent on corporate or government espionage.
Phelps notes that the National Security Agency is currently training teams to defend the U.S. against cyberattacks.
“We are constantly under attack,” said Phelps. “In effect, this is the most common form of warfare, and our defense is dependent entirely on people with the skills to recognize and then prevent these incursions. This is a whole new area with tremendous potential, an area that has been neglected since the Internet came into being.”
The complexity of today’s technology means there are multiple ways to work around the standard set of protocols that are involved in setting up a computer network. To Ehlers, that gives the advantage to the offense, the people trying to break into a system.
“The more nimble the defense becomes, the better,” he said. “Even if the attackers score a tactical victory at the outset—and they will, because it’s impossible to predict when and where they will strike—a good defense can put a stop to the damage quickly, turn the tables and find who attacked.”
The danger to cyber systems is not just from attack; natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornados and floods can also cause computer outages that can shut down utility grids. Professionals are needed who can quickly and efficiently repair or reroute networks.
All three men agree that it is vital for universities to recognize and capitalize on the national concerns about cybersecurity.
Namin said the Center for the Science and Engineering of Cyber Security was formed to allow better collaboration with colleagues in the Department of Computer Science.
“We also have reached out to colleagues in other departments across campus with the long-term plan to promote cybersecurity education at Texas Tech,” he said.
“Cybersecurity issues are always going to be with us,” said Ehlers. “We need to build cyber-education into the education system and into the defense and economic structures of the U.S. We are starting from a deep deficit, in terms of human expertise, to safeguard our systems and power grids, and all the things that make the country prosperous and make us safe.”
Sally Post is Director of Research and Academic Communications in the Office of the Vice President for Research at Texas Tech University.