Cyber security a worry? NKU developing answers

When cyber security firm McAfee issued an alert this week that hackers from North Korea are actively targeting U.S. businesses and infrastructure, it was the kind of news that plants seeds of doubt in the minds of every company that does business on the Internet.

If you are in California, you probably know where to go for talent that can help ward off such threats. If you’re a Northern Kentucky company with such concerns, finding cyber security expertise may seem like something not as readily available,  but one of the best sources for cyber security talent is actually right in your backyard.

NKU’s Cyber Defense team from the College of Informatics Computer Sciences Department won the Kentucky state competition a month ago, earning a berth in the Midwest Regional Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition next week in Chicago.

NKU should have a solid shot at regionals, as its score at the state level was not only best in Kentucky, it was also higher than any program from Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin and Missouri.

NKU’s commitment to being a leader in cyber security education has evolved as quickly as the field itself.

The university didn’t begin offering its first cyber security course until 2000, but by 2009 its commitment to the field had grown enough to start fielding a team for competitions. Currently, students in the information technology and information systems programs can incorporate cyber security as part of their degree tracks or as a minor, but according to James Walden, NKU’s director of the Center for Information Security, the school will be adding a bachelor’s program in cyber security in the 2019-20 academic year.

The demand is there. The majority of NKU grads who have cyber security training have stayed to work locally, Walden estimates, and current data shows that there are about 1,600 unfilled cyber security positions in the Greater Cincinnati market alone.

NKU added to the resources available to train students with a cyber security interest last year when it opened its JRG Cyber Threat Intelligence Lab, a modernistic facility modeled after the security operations centers found at big corporations and cyber security consultants.

“Being able to think on our feet is exactly what the team strives to improve upon constantly through our training,” says Aluor Nyamor, the captain of NKU’s team. “When we train, we run through the wringer, like with our “Crazy Saturday” training, where our team is forced to administer a network we know nothing about. The most important thought to hold onto is the first line in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Universe, ‘Don’t panic.’”

The team is coached by NKU Professor of Computer Science Yi Hu, who also advises NKU’s Cyber Security club, from which the team is drawn. “As the competitions are approaching, we tend to have more simulation competitions that are like the real competition environments, so our students are trained for that,” Hu says.

Along with Nyamur, the current team includes students Justin Widanski, Zack McMurtry, Zeb Gentry, Nathanael Long, John Arlinghaus, Bradley Hatting, Justin Flynn and Benjamin Pohlabeln.

This actually marks the third straight year that NKU’s team has won the Kentucky competition and advanced to regionals. The best showing in the team’s 11-year history was in 2014, when they won the regional title and advanced to nationals, placing sixth in the country out of about 200 schools that compete in the field.

Nyamor is typical of many of the students on the team, in that he is a local product, having been born and raised in Cincinnati by parents who emigrated from Nigeria.

Walden says there actually is a bit of a misnomer many people still believe that students today come to college self-educated on behind-the-scenes skills like coding and cyber security. That was more of a factor 15 or 20 years ago, when computers were more basic.

Today, students entering college are like many of the rest of us, as touchscreens and other increasingly powerful but simple interfaces have allowed them to access computing benefits without having to learn the guts of what is going on inside.

Nyamor was interested in computing and that grew into an interest in systems. But when he would create his own networks, others would point out vulnerabilities in what he had designed that could make his creations vulnerable.

“I was spurred on to find a way to protect what I created,” Nyamor says.”I wanted to learn to build something that was lasting. Cybersecurity is a subject that grows and evolves, but it is always relevant, so it forces me to grow and evolve as well.”

That is exactly what the competition experience is supposed to be all about, Hu says.

“The regional competition is very intense. Not only is the entire team in a place that we are unfamiliar with, but we must also compete at a level that requires a lot of fortitude,” Nyamor says.

And, of course, they would like to win. “At this point, every team member must understand the dynamics and expected performance of each team member,” he says. “This is very much a college team sports competition!”

Read more articles by Carey Hoffman.

As a Cincinnatian for almost all his life, Carey Hoffman has written about numerous subjects involving almost every Greater Cincinnati neighborhood. He enjoys history — both local and beyond — reading, anything to do with golf, most things related to basketball, and all things that make Cincinnati a more interesting and better place.