Originally published January 9, 2015
By Daniel Perez
UTEP News Service
The cyber attack that started in November 2014 against Sony Pictures Entertainment was the latest high-profile example of computer hacking, and another reason The University of Texas at El Paso continues to ramp up its Secure Cyber Systems course track.
Interest in cyber security within industry and government has risen dramatically during the past decade as more entities protect their assets from millions of daily technological threats, foreign and domestic. According to a 2012 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report, an additional 4.3 million cyber security professionals will be hired before the end of the decade to contend with the growing number of attacks that cost the average U.S. organization about $6 million annually.
Some of these companies, such as IBM and Lockheed Martin, and government agencies are working with UTEP to bolster expertise in this field because of the growing demand globally for skilled individuals.
This month UTEP representatives will participate in a cyber security technology exchange consortium for University of Texas System schools at The University of Texas at Dallas, and will submit a proposal to the National Security Agency (NSA) for certification as a Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Operations. The University already is certified as a Center of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance Education.
“Cyber security is one of the most important challenges in computer science, and the stakes only will increase as technology plays a greater role in our infrastructure and our everyday lives,” said Christopher Kiekintveld, Ph.D., assistant professor of computer science.
Ann Q. Gates, Ph.D., chair of UTEP’s Department of Computer Science, said the plan is to build on the courses and research that already are in place.
Two years ago, the department started to develop a cyber security track at the undergraduate and graduate levels. It recently began to offer a certificate in cyber security to graduate students.
Gates recently hired two part-time faculty members whose full-time jobs involve cyber security. The department’s research, most of which is focused on software engineering, includes how to design systems to resist an attack, decoy systems strategies, privacy protection for health care records, and a program that allows systems to work even if they have been infected by a virus.
“There are a lot of different ways you approach cyber security, and our program is more along the software engineering side, from inception to deployment,” Gates said.
Among the department’s collaborators is Dennis Bly, an IBM Academic Initiative skills leader who has worked with the department’s faculty for the past three years to update curriculum and identify necessary training materials. Skills leaders focus on emerging technologies and areas where there is a shortage of qualified job candidates, such as cyber security.
Bly, who works out of IBM’s Austin office, said cyber security requires a strong knowledge of industry best practices, technical skills and the diligence to maintain these systems. He said he is excited to work with Gates and the University to help prepare highly trained graduates to deal with persistent and sophisticated attacks.
Also on board is Will Bengston, a security consultant with Cigital, one of the world’s largest software security firms. The El Paso native, who has been employed by Raytheon and the U.S. Department of Defense, plans to work with the department to achieve its NSA accreditation. As a member of the department’s advisory board, he will review curriculum and offer feedback based on his unique perspective of industry needs.
Bengston, known as an “ethical” hacker, uses his skills to find weaknesses in clients’ web security and then develop protection strategies. He said he hoped to create real-world, hands-on learning opportunities for UTEP’s cyber security students.
“I know there is an increasing need for cyber security experts around the world,” Bengston said. “You become an expert through training, studying and by having a solid background in computer science, and that’s happening at UTEP.”
Among those who have benefited from the security focus is Baltazar Santaella, who is on track to be UTEP’s first graduate to earn the Master of Science in software engineering with a concentration in cyber security in May 2015.
“I wanted to dive into (cyber security),” said the El Paso native who admitted to being a victim of cyber crimes. “There’s always something new. Sometimes it’s malicious, but it’s always fascinating.”
Santaella, a senior programmer with UTEP’s Enrollment Services Technology group, earned his bachelor’s degree in computer science from UTEP in 2005.
Florencia A. Larsen, a senior computer science major, said she may follow in Santaella’s footsteps. The former computer technician said she was alarmed by how easily predators can access sensitive data. She said she would have to think like a hacker to be successful.
“I may be overwhelmed, but it sounds like fun,” she said.
Salamah I. Salamah, Ph.D., clinical associate professor and director of UTEP’s Software Engineering program, said every software course includes elements of cyber security, but one of the program’s major courses – System Security Assurance – asks students to think of themselves as hackers.
“If you know what others might do to you, you will develop systems that will be better prepared to deal with these attacks,” Salamah said.
Luc Longpré, Ph.D., associate professor of computer science and considered the department’s cyber security expert, said the Sony situation was a reminder of our technical vulnerabilities. The analogy he likes to make about cyber security is that it is like adding the utilities to a home after the structure has been built.
“You have to make it part of the design for it to work well,” said Longpré, who taught a course in secure web-based systems during the fall 2014 semester and amazed his students by sharing how easy it was to infiltrate some web domains.
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