Education is the first line of defense in cybersecurity

With instances of cyber warfare on the rise across the globe, technology experts are predicting that a major incident could occur in the United States sooner rather than later. According to a July study by the Brookings Institution, U.S. ports are a prime target, as none of them are adequately prepared to respond to a cyberattack. How do we keep these attacks at bay if no one has taken action so far? Our current college students, who represent the next generation of cyber warriors, are the answer. We run into a problem, though, when we survey the education these students are receiving.

Cyber warfare presents a threat to the safety and prosperity of all citizens, and higher education is woefully lacking in response to this ever-growing issue. Colleges and universities are not adequately addressing the need of an emerging market that will require increasingly skilled workers to combat the very real threats posed by hackers and terrorist groups seeking to destroy both civilian and government/military infrastructures. With the evolution of American warfare come new threats and theaters presenting pressing problems to national defense decision-makers. Even before 9/11, our nation was consumed with fear over the threat of chemical warfare, and now cyber terrorism presents a host of issues that must be addressed.

Though foreign to many, cyberattacks offer a real and serious threat to both national defense and businesses that is as destabilizing as traditional physical warfare. Take, for example, the March 2013 attack on nonprofit group Cyber Bunker by Spamhaus. Considered by many to be the largest cyberattack in history, Spamhaus’s attack inundated servers with phony traffic that rendered Web-based services unavailable to millions and caused panic over a worldwide shutdown of many email and banking systems.

Perhaps even more concerning is recent news from The New York Times that a foreign hacking ring sold more than 160 million credit card numbers they stole from major international retailers from 2005 until 2012. Losses for one company totaled nearly $200 million, and some of the hackers still have not been caught.

These types of threats are happening on an increasingly regular basis, which means that our country must be prepared by utilizing the knowledge and expertise of highly skilled professionals who are trained to handle cybersecurity issues.

As an educator, I wholeheartedly believe that it is my duty to support legislation like the Cyber Warriors Act of 2013 recently introduced by Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy (D). This legislation would establish Cyber and Computer Network Incident Response Teams as part of the National Guard, allowing for significant expansion of the Guard’s currently limited cyber mission. In a March report on the legislation, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) exemplified the need for such legislation, saying “We must continue to provide cyber guards the tools and resources necessary to carry out their mission of safeguarding our economy, critical infrastructure, and citizens in this new era of security at home and abroad.”

One of our greatest defense mechanisms is to increase our focus on developing and promoting higher education to increase our capacity to respond to cyber threats. This is where educators’ duty to prepare students matters. As leaders have indicated, our cyber defense forces are vastly short of what is needed to protect our country. It is not enough to teach marketable skills and let students’ education end there — higher education institutions must offer certifications, degree tracks and cyber education training in niche areas. This will help students establish a career path to not only ensure professional success but also ready them for when the call for service comes, which it inevitably will.

Another clear reason for promoting advanced cybersecurity education is the trust that can be engendered between defense organizations and corporations and trained technology professionals. Many times these entities hire hackers for protection — why should people accessing information illegally be paid to, or even trusted, to protect us? This is not the way to promote national defense or the economic stability of businesses. Trusted and highly educated cybersecurity personnel are the absolute best option to defend against a new mode of warfare.

Leahy clearly understands the gravity of having too few trained cyber defense forces and recognizes the need for educators to step up and make more options available as part of students’ college education experience. I encourage other educators to join in support of this legislation, and make technology and cybersecurity education readily available to students at their institutions. Whether through a degree program or specific courses within another major, it is our duty as educators nationwide to properly train future leaders to effectively serve and protect our country.

Boyers is managing director of the Division of Continuing Professional Studies at Champlain College in Burlington, Vt., a private institution that offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees in professionally-focused programs balanced by an interdisciplinary core curriculum.