Originally published March 27, 2015
By Lisa Y. Garibay
UTEP News Service
A rare opportunity to hear new analysis of cyber threats and cyber defense strategies for everything from government to home computers took place at The University of Texas at El Paso March 18-19.
“Cyber Threats to the U.S. Government and Private Sectors” was the first of five annual events to be presented by UTEP’s National Security Studies Institute (NSSI).
“The annual national security colloquium highlights the most important security issues facing the United States and its allies,” said NSSI Director Larry Valero, Ph.D. “It brings together numerous distinguished scholars, security professionals and students to discuss highly complex problems in an open forum.”
More than 130 attendees spanned careers in the military, specializations in the cyber (online) domain and intelligence, as well as students, faculty and members of the general public.
Topics covered were the role of diplomacy and geopolitics in cyberspace, threats to the private and public sectors, cybersecurity for higher education and the training of future cybersecurity leaders through the development of curricula and academic degree plans. In between panels and speakers, a real-time interactive cyberattack tracker developed by U.S. company NORSE was projected onto the room’s screen, giving scope to the amount of back-and-forth going on between a variety of countries around the world – and just how pervasive online threats are to individuals and organizations at local, regional, national and international levels.
Coincidentally, the conference took place the day it was announced that major health care insurer Premera Blue Cross had been hacked, affecting the private medical and financial data of an estimated 11 million individuals. It joined other high-profile recent commercial breaches like those of Target, Sony and the banking industry.
UTEP President Diana Natalicio welcomed attendees with a speech that mentioned the $1.86 million grant the University received to bolster the NSSI and its educational mission. (Read a previous UTEP News report on this grant here.)
Students were able to learn from and interact with some of the foremost experts in the nation, including representatives from the Naval War College, the National Defense University and private security company FireEye.
Esther Al-Tabaa, a graduate student in NSSI, was eager to hear about the ever-changing cybersecurity landscape straight from those at its forefront.
“The presentations today will fast-track a lot of this information for me,” she said.
Freshman political science major and Intelligence and National Security Studies (INSS) minor Paloma Flores decided to explore the field based on her memory of 9/11 and the way that terrorism has expanded into the online world.
“It’s very hard to control and I want to hear any new ideas about how one can control something that’s basically invisible,” she said.
Keynote speaker John Sheldon, Ph.D., executive director of the George C. Marshall Institute and former professor of space and cyberspace strategic studies at the U.S. Air Force’s School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, spoke about why geography still matters even in cyberspace as well as what the coming decades may hold.
“If you think it’s interesting now, the world’s going to get even more interesting in these fields and if anything more will be expected of future cyber experts than is currently,” Sheldon said. “I’m heartened to see these kinds of programs taking place at UTEP. [Its students] will be in constant employment.”
Sheldon added that UTEP’s binational environment is a definite benefit for students and researchers in the cyber realm. “Cultural skills in this new world, whether it’s cyber intelligence or any other branch of security, is an immense advantage,” he said.
U.S. Cyber Command’s Michael Warner, Ph.D. – a self-described cyber historian – covered how power can be used in cyberspace.
“Cyber war is here,” Warner said. “Every armed conflict around the world today has a cyber dimension to it now.”
Warner explained that for all its modernity, understanding the past is key when it comes to cyber warfare, and historical record can be a tremendous advantage when strategizing better security in cyberspace. While most things cyber-related are still very new, tactics relating to it go back to World War I.
Derek Reveron, Ph.D., of the Naval War College delivered a keynote on the colloquium’s second day focusing on the newest major player in worldwide economics and politics, China – the second-largest trading partner to the U.S., having surpassed Mexico.
“China helps advertise the importance of the topic [of cybersecurity],” he said. He noted that as a result of increased attacks within cyberspace – and many speakers clearly pointed out that the U.S. is on the offense as much as it is defending its cyber arenas – cyber is the only area growing in the U.S. defense budget.
During his presentation, colloquium organizer and INSS assistant professor Damien Van Puyvelde, Ph.D., said that there are continual breaches of security across the public-private divide; that is, there is no divide when it comes to the government relying on private contractors given that human beings are simply subject to fallibility.
UTEP alumnus Tomás Armendariz of the FBI stressed that social engineering – a main defense against cyberattack – comes down to human interaction. He shared valuable advice on paring down one’s LinkedIn profile as a way of being vigilant versus connecting with as many individuals as possible (most of whom one may not actually ever have had contact with in person).
Armendariz cited an example of one individual who impersonated members of a particular organization, then networked with genuine employees of that organization in order to gain sensitive information, thus opening that company to a security breach.
A panel on training tomorrow’s cyber workforce highlighted the fact that as adult learners return to academia for second or third careers, they are ripe for the picking when it comes to degrees or certificates in cyber expertise.
Current and former INSS students were represented by Gary Adkins, a special projects administrator for the Teachers Federal Credit Union of El Paso, and graduate student Sean Curtis, who made the colloquium’s final presentations on the use of websites and social media by terrorist and grassroots revolution organizations.
Interdisciplinary programs like INSS – which will see its 100th Intelligence and National Security Studies master’s degree recipient walk across the stage at Commencement this May – are prepared to make a significant contribution in this regard. The colloquium’s proceedings will be published in an edited volume, which will further raise the research profile of the institute and UTEP as a whole.
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