SANTA FE, N.M. — A cybersecurity breach at Equifax exposed sensitive personal data – including Social Security numbers, birth dates and addresses – potentially impacting 143 million Americans.
Hackers using the handle Dragonfly 2.0 reportedly targeted dozens of U.S. energy companies last spring and summer, gaining access to utility networks and, in some cases, control over grid operations.
And hijacked emails of a presidential candidate, along with more recent allegations of Russians hacking U.S. election systems last year, have roiled the political world.
How worried should we be about cyber attacks that have the potential to steal our identities and life savings, paralyze our power infrastructure and threaten our system of democracy?
“You have to be worried,” said Jorge Crichigno, who heads the Information Engineering Technology program at Northern New Mexico College.
A recently accredited program backed by a $433,000 grant from National Science Foundation and partly supported by Los Alamos National Laboratory aims to create a workforce to protect against cyber threats.
The three-year grant will introduce some aspects of cybersecurity in starting level classes and create a higher-level Applied Cybersecurity class to begin next year. A “400-level” Information Assurances and Security class, supplemented with virtual laboratories, or vLabs, will assist students in applying the fundamental principles they’ve learned about cybersecurity.
Internships, including 10 already being offered by LANL, are also part of the program.
The full framework will be in place by 2019, Crichigno said.
Students could cover the course work in two years and graduate with a bachelor’s degree in Information Engineering Technology with a concentration in cybersecurity.
And they may well end up with a well-paid job with a government agency or in the business world.
For instance, LANL posts entry-level jobs in cybersecurity that pay annual salaries in the $70,000 to $80,000 range. Crichigno says mid-level jobs in the industry approach $200,000 and go up from there.
“And that’s all over the country,” he said. “There’s so much demand. But that’s a positive thing for our graduates.”
Nothing like it
Student James McKeough says earning a degree in cybersecurity is job security.
“I’ve seen the tech boom – the dot coms and applications. All those applications need to be secure. All those websites need to be secure. I don’t see anything going on in the world today that’s bigger than this,” he said.
He’s impressed by the program NNMC is offering because he says it mixes database content with computer science, something he said you don’t normally get until graduate level.
“I don’t see anything like it anywhere else,” he said.
McKeough, 32, has bounced from job to job over the years. He says he did construction and delivery work for prominent Española businessman Richard Cook for some time, later managed a hardware store, and helped open everything from tattoo shops to a chain of art galleries.
A high school dropout, he got his GED at Northern when it was still a community college and now has his sights set on what he believes will provide him with a secure career.
McKeough is attracted by the pay, but also the opportunity to travel. He says he wants to work in the corporate world – perhaps the airline or oil industries – and relocate to somewhere like Dubai or Singapore.
Another student, Ronald Weese, was introduced to computers – the Commodore 64 – when he was in eighth grade and later operated a Digital Message Device, sending two-way encrypted communications, when he joined the Army after graduating high school in 1985.
“Back then, the only people I knew that used computers were in the Army,” he said. “Today, computers have reached into every aspect of our lives.”
Weese moved to New Mexico in 1991 (a two-week ski trip turned into a permanent move from Dallas). He, too, has held various jobs – from starting a dry cleaning business in Albuquerque to apartment maintenance and management positions – and enrolled in classes at NNMC in 2013 because it was 12 miles from his home in Pojoaque.
“You’re never too old to learn,” said the 51-year-old.
Weese returned to school after 20 years, having previously taken classes through the University of Phoenix. What he likes best about Northern is all his instructors have either Ph.D.s or master’s degrees.
A ‘new trade’
Crichigno, a native of Paraguay, got his Ph.D. at the University of New Mexico and came to NNMC in 2009 to join the fledgling College of Engineering and Technology, which now has an enrollment of about 1,300, 120 of them engineering students.
He has helped build the program, and is credited with helping secure the National Science Foundation grant and getting the program accredited through ABET, a nonprofit accrediting agency for programs in applied and natural science, computing, engineering and engineering technology. The accreditation process alone took a year, he said.
He also spent six months on sabbatical last year working at the Florida Center for Cybersecurity on the campus of the University of South Florida in Tampa. He jokes that he was kept so busy there he never had the opportunity to go to Disney World.
That experience gave him what he needed to write the grant application, and help prepare curriculum and training materials for Northern’s cybersecurity program, operated in conjunction with USF, using standards set by the National Security Agency and the Committee on National Security Systems.
NNMC College President Rick Bailey is a former Air Force commander who has written about “cyber power,” including co-editing and authoring the introduction to a book titled “Strategy: Context and Adaptation from Archidamus to Airpower.” Prior to coming to NNMC, he also served as professor of security and strategy studies at the USAF’s School of Advanced Air and Space Studies.
The development of the cybersecurity program pre-dates his arrival at the college a year ago, but he’s glad that NNMC now has it to offer.
“It (cybersecurity) is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot the past several years, so I’m personally excited,” he said of the program. “In my academic background, I have done some research on strategy in cyberspace and how we have to think strategically about computer science, and how as a society as we become more strategic we also become more vulnerable. We need to be very, very diligent about how we think about security.”
Bailey said cybersecurity has become a “new trade” and the college is in good position to exploit it.
“It’s a growing field and we are excited about the possibilities – and the economic development possibilities – that it could bring to northern New Mexico,” he said. “To offer a two-year degree where graduates can start jobs that pay in the 80s ($80,000s), that’s a game-changer for us.”
Other collaborators in the development of the cybersecurity program are the Western Academy Support and Training Center in California and the Network Development Group in North Carolina.
Partners include Cisco Systems, Palo Alto Networks and the Los Alamos lab.
Crichigno said that when he wrote the grant, he earmarked money to pay for student internships, but LANL stepped in and said it would offer paid internships in information technology, cybersecurity and communications.
“What’s nice about it is our students are local and can work 10 or 20 hours a week at the lab. What they like is these are local students that they can retain,” he said.
Crichigno said students going through the program don’t just learn cybersecurity, they also learn cyber infrastructure, which is a totally different field.
“The advantage is that they will be familiar with all these things when they graduate and, by the time they graduate, they are trained and they are ready,” he said.