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Designing Degrees for Digital Gatekeepers

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Has your identity been stolen? Has your computer been hacked? Are you sure? The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that more than 11 million Americans are victims of identity theft. That means 11 million successful cyber attacks; the number of failed attempts is almost beyond comprehension.

Internet usage, of course, drives this. It's the fastest acceptance of new technology the world has ever seen. Coupled with our urgent pace of changing technology and information overload comes vulnerability.

In this environment, enter universities that are designing degrees, creating knowledge, framing debates, and developing solutions about pressing issues (before, during, and after they become problems).

Take cyber security.

As we do annually, NYIT recently convened experts from industry, government, and academia to discuss protecting individuals and organizations against cyber attacks, evaluating mobile device security, and using biometrics and big data analytics as cyber defense tools. Clearly, it's not if but when everyone will be hacked. A year ago, no one had heard of Edward Snowden or the Syrian Electronic Army; by next year, they'll likely be old news in the wake of new cracks in the digital foundation. And that's all the more reason to hold these gatherings. We always have more to resolve.

Interestingly, the imperative that arose at the conference was a bit unexpected to those who had not heard it before. It was less about needing futuristic weapons to combat cyber warfare, and more about the need for education. Indeed, for institutions of higher education, it is time to address the critical need for a much larger, sophisticated, and innovative cyber security work force.

Of course, many universities offer programs and coursework in this area, and demand continues to grow for more robust offerings to stay ahead of (or at least on par with) cyber attackers. But, security has not always been baked in from the beginning, whether in product or system designs, or in higher education curriculum. In fact, according to recent IBM Tech Trends research conducted with more than 450 students and 250 educators in computer science, information systems, and engineering, less than 60 percent believe their academic programs address the creation and development of IT security practices in the emerging technology areas of mobile computing, cloud computing, and social business.

The call to action for universities is obvious: We need to innovate. We need to broadly incorporate information- and systems-security practices and principles into our academic programs. We also need to produce more graduates in this field. Among the major challenges, of course, is access to teachers and other resources when academia is competing with government and industry for what is currently the same pool of expert talent.

Marisa S. Viveros, vice president for Cyber Security Innovation at IBM, and author of a report exploring cyber security education for the next generation, spoke at our conference about factors to address this challenge. They include training more qualified faculty, who in turn can educate more cyber security professionals, as well as conducting theoretical or applied research to establish a pipeline of industry professionals, educators, and inventors of new solutions. Additionally, given the lack of cyber security expertise in most countries, Viveros suggested that U.S. universities take the lead in sharing information and consider "adopting" universities worldwide to collaborate and spur innovation in cyber security education.

Universities must heed this industry counsel. NYIT offers concentrations in Internet security (another one is being launched in big data analytics for computer science and information technology majors), as well as a long-standing master's program in information, network, and computer security (INCS). These are taught by faculty who have been awarded prestigious research grants in biometrics, swarm intelligence, cryptography, mobile, and cyber security. Importantly, they often conduct this research in collaboration with faculty at other universities and with engaged students eager to man the front lines of cyber wars around the world.

But, we need to broaden our reach. Just as cyber security and information are global issues, our expertise should also be global. Our master's program in INCS is now approved for students at our NYIT-Vancouver campus. And our cyber security conference will go on the road to our campus in Abu Dhabi. You're invited to join us on March 24, 2014.

The collaboration among industry, government, and academia is vital, but universities' role and call to action at this juncture is the linchpin. We must continue educating and training students to join the ranks of the cyber security elite, and work to ensure that for some, that path leads to careers in cyber security education. We need many more good people at the terminals than bad ones. A good university is a zone of exploration where we promote new ideas, accept failure, reward creativity, breed innovation, and foster interdependent learning. Core to this is providing students with the skills to assess and properly use the information they are gaining, and to leverage technology as a tool for the greater good.