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Exploring Areas of Study: Cybersecurity - Protecting Business And Personal Data
Cybersecurity: Protecting business and personal data
Matthew Stauble of Palo Alto Networks presented a gift of firewall units to Dave Galley, director of the engineering tech program, and Amy Evans, executive director of the Collin College Foundation

Matthew Stauble of Palo Alto Networks presented a gift of firewall units to Dave Galley, director of the engineering tech program, and Amy Evans, executive director of the Collin College Foundation

Lift the glitz and glamour of the red carpet a bit, and the coveted careers portrayed on popular TV programs like “Criminal Minds,” “Law and Order” and “It Takes a Thief” are real-life roles filled by specialists who share one unique quality – the ability to think like the enemy.

Dave Galley, director of engineering at Collin College, said “thinking like a bad guy” is also one of the most important skills students in the cybersecurity program at Collin College must learn to master.

In fact, cybersecurity Professor Steve Willis said that combined with computer networking skills and an analytical mind, this type of unconventional thinking serves as the foundation for an industry that currently has more open jobs than qualified applicants.

The cybersecurity program is one of several information technology programs that benefited from a major federal grant recently. The U. S. Department of Labor awarded nearly $20 million in grant funds to a consortium led by Collin College aimed at training and workforce development to help unemployed workers change careers. The consortium of six colleges stretches from coast to coast, and the grant is the largest in Collin College history.

Following a couple of years working in a field lacking the challenge and stability she desired, Merys Raymer decided to return to the metaphorical drawing board of her career goals.

“I looked for courses I could take at Collin because they were affordable, and cybersecurity seemed like it could be really rewarding,” Raymer said. “There’s a lot of hands-on configuration and technical work. This is not a field you go into if you want to learn everything and then stop learning. It’s something where every two years, everything you know has changed.”

Moving forward in courses focused on what faculty casually refer to as firewall forensics and incident response, Raymer discovered a more narrow interest she is eager to spend the next 40 years undertaking – penetration testing. As a penetration tester, Raymer said she will spend much of her time thinking like a behavioral profiler or high-end thief.

“Your job is to find vulnerabilities in people’s existing systems,” Raymer said. “Obviously, they know when you’re doing it, but it’s your job to analyze a system the company thinks is secure and find where other people could get into it. That way, the company can fix those trouble areas before an actual attack happens.”

She believes it is best described in terms of a neighborhood.

“You can lock your doors, but someone can still break in through the windows,” Raymer said “The trick is to make your house more difficult to break into than your neighbor’s house.”

In the same way, Galley emphasizes any corporation with an online presence will never be 100 percent secure.

“It’s really about how many penetration attempts you are going to have in a 24-hour period,” Galley said.

At first glance, weaknesses in large corporate security systems may not seem relevant to the everyday individual, but Galley and Willis warn that Americans should not dismiss the serious impact these vulnerabilities can have on them.

“The average person has one password they use for everything,” Galley said “In general, a penetrator knows that breaking into the Bank of America or the Fidelity system is a federal offense with a minimum 10 years in prison. They also know they can break into Sears or campingpillows.com and get the same passwords.”

Cybersecurity Demand Chart
Whether it is stolen passwords or credit card information, legislators continue to become more aware of the repercussions insecurities in big business information systems have on the individual citizen, resulting in the creation of new disclosure requirements. Although many companies find these laws frustrating, steps toward compliance have created an immediate need for more than 40,000 jobs in cybersecurity, an industry expected to continue growing as threats to information technology inevitably increase.

Although advancements like mobile technology and cloud computing have made life easier in many aspects, they have also allowed for many holes in security, requiring even deeper advancement in security systems. Dynamic firewalls, such as the 12 recently donated to Collin College by industry leader Palo Alto Networks, are cybersecurity’s most recent answer to these needs.

Pete Brierley, computer networking professor, indicated this new technology has also created a forum for discussion about how safe it is for corporations to allow employees to bring their phones to work or provide their own computers.

“You go do your transaction from your smartphone via the wireless network at Starbucks fully believing everything is fine,” Raymer said.“And then, all of a sudden, someone has your credit card information.”

With personal privacy at risk, big business on the defensive and associate degree graduates earning six-figure salaries, students like Raymer are preparing for jobs that will provide security in more ways than one.

While demand for corporate cybersecurity is on the rise, with 30,000 currently open positions, Willis said the government is also seeking 10,000 qualified cybersecurity professionals for both public safety and intelligence seeking.

In a profession with such demand, many Collin College cybersecurity students who’ve earned certifications begin working well before graduation. Opportunities like co-op and student organizations, such as the newly formed Information Systems Security Association (ISSA) student chapter, which runs out of the regional North Texas ISSA chapter, help students fine-tune skills, gain experience and network.

Raymer, co-founder of the first student chapter in the world, said interactions in ISSA have solidified her confidence.

“We’ve only been doing this a few months, and I know two people who were unemployed one month and after investing time in ISSA were employed the next,” Raymer said. “And I get to interact with great people like our student advisor John Jordan, director of IT at Texas Instruments.”

Although the prospect of a healthy job market at their fingertips is great for current cybersecurity students, Collin College’s youngest students in Wylie ISD’s dual credit cybersecurity track also have reason for excitement. Regardless of their long-term goals, students who complete the career track will have a sufficient number of certifications by the end of their senior year to immediately land a job.

“Most importantly,” Galley said, “We find the program provides all of our graduates with an applicable skill set that places their resume at the top of the shortlist.”

For more information about Collin College’s cybersecurity program, visit http://www.collin.edu/academics/programs/cybersecurity.html.