On Guard

By Drew Menard, February 20, 2015

Liberty trains future cyber defenders.Thanks to technology, we enjoy the luxury of having massive amounts of information at our fingertips. But with all this information stored digitally on networks and cloud servers, hackers have ample opportunities to attack. Now more than ever, it is imperative that well-trained cybersecurity professionals are called into action.

“The more information that is available in the cyber world, the larger the pie becomes as far as a cyber criminal is concerned,” said David Donahoo, dean of Liberty University’s School of Engineering & Computational Sciences (SECS). “You have to be smarter than the guys out there attacking — and they will always be attacking.”

Cybersecurity training is vital, and Liberty’s computational sciences programs remain committed to strengthening the ranks. Last fall, Liberty launched a master’s degree in cybersecurity, available online and designed for computer science graduates or professionals already working in the field. SECS also plans to launch an undergraduate cybersecurity cognate in the computer science program. All of the classes needed for that cognate are currently being offered as part of other degree programs within SECS and the School of Business.

“The focus in developing the curriculum has always been on practical, hands-on skills,” said Dr. Mark Shaneck, online chair of cybersecurity. “In addition to the normal coursework, we have done a lot of custom lab development to create labs that are as realistic as possible, so that the view students have is the same as if they were actually doing this on their job sites.”

Donahoo said that by working with leading companies in the industry, SECS is able to offer a unique educational experience.

Cypherpath, a solutions company, hosts lab environments for Liberty, and Jones & Bartlett, a learning-performance management company, helps develop the labs as well as provide custom supplementary materials that coincide with the lab work.

With increasing numbers of hacks and leaks being reported by the media, the nation has become more aware of the need for cybersecurity, said Donahoo, who has more than 40 years of experience in information systems, both in the military and in the corporate world. The U.S. Army recently launched a Cyber Branch, demonstrating the relevance of acknowledging the need for this type of security.

“As a society, people are demanding to know that they are being protected. We always did protect them, but now they want to know about it,” Donahoo said. “Technology has evolved over the years — a credit card breach in the early 1990s meant just one card; now it can affect hundreds of thousands to millions of people.”

The employment possibilities for cybersecurity professionals are bountiful, from small businesses to large corporations.

“Wherever there is technology, there is a need for cybersecurity,” Shaneck said.

Jobs also extend past cyberspace. Control system infrastructures, like power grids, are vulnerable even though they may not be connected to the Internet. An alliance between the School of Business and the SECS provides technology-related  degrees for almost any student looking for a career in the industry.  Liberty offers computer-related degrees in many specializations, from Information Systems and Information Technology through the business school to Computer Science and Computer Engineering — creating and building the hardware and software — through SECS.

Donahoo said this collaboration allows Liberty to offer separate master’s degrees to support two distinct functions: a Master of Science in Information Assurance (business) and a Master of Science in Cyber Security (engineering).

“Information assurance is about building plans, policies, and procedures; cybersecurity is about implementing those things and protecting systems,” he explained. “They are distinct approaches to the same challenge: how to secure our systems.”

“Securing information is not just for the technology professionals anymore,” Donahoo said. “It is everyone’s responsibility.” Sensing this, SECS also offers a minor in information security, a non-technical option for students in any discipline. According to Donahoo, it is a great way for students to increase their marketability upon graduation.

“It applies to every possible area and field,” he said. “Put an accountant in an accounting office who understands information security, even at the most fundamental level, and you have a very valuable asset.”

Donahoo said that because all of these technology options require different levels of technical proficiency and skill, the School of Business and SECS are launching a first-year technology curriculum this fall designed to introduce students to the differences in the program offerings early so that they can set off on the right path in their chosen field.

Cyber Defense Club helps students sharpen their skills

Liberty’s Cyber Defense Club participates in collegiate competitions that mirror real-world crisis events. The club, which accepts students from any major, has grown significantly in the last few years.

Last spring, the team won second place in its first trip to the Mid-Atlantic Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition.

“It was very realistic,” said Dr. Mark Shaneck, the team’s coach. “They had about three weeks’ worth of tasks to do in two, eight-hour business days, so they had to prioritize. They had to balance business tasks while keeping attackers out and dealing with them when they did get in, as well as get new systems up and running.”

The event was covered by NBC News, which interviewed Liberty’s team captain, Hannah Kirse.

Last fall, the team had three members place in the top 20 individually (6th, 17th, and 18th) out of more than 870 students nationwide in the National Cyber League. In the team portion of the competition, Liberty finished second overall.

Liberty also works with local high schools to establish similar clubs, providing early exposure and education in the field.

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