UNO cybersecurity program prepares students for FBI and NSA careers

Photo courtesy of Greg Staskiewicz

Greg Staskiewicz

Not even hospital equipment or pacemakers are safe from cyber-attacks.

The Cybersecurity program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) is teaching new professionals who can protect data and devices from hackers.

Cybersecurity is a fast-paced field. Things change so quickly that certain classes aren’t taught more than a few semesters in a row because they constantly need to be updated, said Bill Mahoney, associate professor of cybersecurity.

Mahoney teaches several classes in the program: Embedded Systems Security, Industrial Control Security and Reverse Engineering, as well as classes in computer science.

In Industrial Control Security, students learn how to protect infrastructure and industry assets that are connected to the internet, which are targets for hackers, Mahoney said.

For instance, the controls at a water treatment facility could be hacked and made to destroy equipment. He teaches students how to deal with these kinds of threats.

A lab in the Peter Kiewit Institute holds a small scale-model of a power grid, which students use to simulate an industrial cyber-attack. The lab also has a mock-up of hospital air conditioning controls, which can be hacked and made to malfunction as a simulation for threats.

Industrial security is critical because attacks against vital infrastructure can be life-threatening.

Another area vulnerable to hackers is the Internet of Things, also known as IOT. IOT involves everything from smart refrigerators, internal car navigation and especially important, hospital and medical equipment.

Even smart watches and pacemakers are vulnerable to attack. Medical information sent by smart watches can be intercepted, and pacemakers can be targeted by radio signals and forced to malfunction.

Mahoney also teaches Reverse Engineering. In this class, students disassemble, analyze and reassemble malware and computer viruses in order to understand how they work.

Robin Gandhi, who holds a Ph.D. in Information Technology, works in the area of Software Assurance, the practice of securing software and safely implementing it.

“Companies often develop software that is not secure, only to be forced to go back and renovate it,” Mahoney said.

The Cybersecurity program also teaches Digital Forensics. This entails cybersecurity experts analyzing digital devices for evidence in criminal cases.

“So-and-so murdered such-and-such, here’s his phone. What’s on the phone?” Mahoney said. “Forensics is a big deal.”

Cybersecurity also works in encryption, which involves the encoding of data to make it unreadable by those who are not supposed to have access to it.

Cybersecurity has a student club called NULLify. One of their activities is called Capture the Flag – students play a game in which they either attack or defend systems.

The National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security designate “centers of academic excellence,” of which there three types: two-year cyber defense, which focuses on protecting systems; and cyber operations, which focuses on attacking systems. UNO is both a cyber defense and cyber operations school.

The NSA chooses certain areas in which they want students to be trained, Mahoney said. If students learn these criteria, the agency offers them jobs.

“We are, at UNO, kind of unique,” Mahoney said.

UNO Cybersecurity graduates have gone on to work in many places, among them government agencies like the FBI, NSA and the U.S. Department of the Treasury, as well as private companies.

Ann Fruhling, director of the School of Interdisciplinary Informatics, said, “We want the Cybersecurity program in the College of Information Science and Technology to be known for offering top-quality cybersecurity education experiences where students learn from internationally respected cybersecurity researchers.”

Some of the opportunities the program offers students is the chance to engage in hands-on learning by working to solve high-profile cybersecurity problems, taking capstone projects in partnership with companies in the cybersecurity industry, and by doing internships in both the public and private sectors, she said.

Researchers at Cybersecurity are currently working under several grants from the National Science Foundation: Gandhi is researching how to secure bridges in the US, and Abhishek Parakh, who holds a doctorate in computer science, is researching how to improve security using cryptography, the art of making and breaking codes, Fruhling said.

The number of cybersecurity undergraduates grows by about 20 percent every year.

Instructor Chris Daniels teaches Introduction to Cybersecurity, which is one of six sections of the class. There are about 30 students in one of the sections.

James Legge, a junior and one of the students in the class, is a Cybersecurity major. His father works with electronic medical records, and he wants to help protect them. He “loves technology” and is excited to use his knowledge to help protect people’s privacy.