Combating cyber crimes and attacks

New cybersecurity program at Clark College aims to help businesses fight back

Cyber attack graphic

Cyber crimes have become ever more sophisticated in recent years, making some companies long for the days of denial of service attacks, but a new bachelor’s degree program at Clark College aims to help the region’s businesses fight back.

In fall of 2020 the college will launch its first Cybersecurity degree program, the longtime brainchild of Network Technology Department head Dwight Hughes. Through the program, students will learn how to monitor networks for suspicious activity and how to cut them off from getting inside sensitive computer systems. The skill set was identified as a high-need area across the Pacific Northwest, and students will graduate into a job market that generally pays $50,000 to $80,000, up well into the six-figure range, Hughes said.

“It’s certainly a very in-demand profession,” Hughes said. “Lots of local companies need cybersecurity analysts. As an analyst, you do hands-on work watching the network actively, and use countermeasures to block intrusion. Students can also learn cybersecurity planning and auditing in the program.”

Denial of service attacks – in which a network is spammed repeatedly by computers around the world in an effort to collapse it – have become more of an old-school problem. It’s a brute force attack, but cyber defenders have become well skilled at fighting them off.

The huge problem today is ransomware attacks. In those attacks, hackers find some sort of back door into a company’s or government’s computer network and then they encrypt all the data, password lock it and demand a ransom from the company to release it.

As an example, in Baltimore, Maryland, this May, the city was forced by ransomware hackers to pay $18 million to get its data back.

“These attackers don’t just get into your system in one day, they’ve been looking and looking at all the digital doors your company has for weaknesses,” Hughes said, adding that they often take months before engaging the ransomware.

Hughes started developing the program about seven years ago, but it was shelved for a time because of financial and political constraints at Clark College. Then, about three years ago, the school found the resources to put it together and set Hughes out to spearhead the project.

The college is expecting a lot of demand for the classes, so it’s letting students sign up for the program starting in fall 2019. There will be only 20 spots in the first two years, but that will expand to 40 by 2022. The classes are also geared toward working adults, and will be held two evenings a week, coupled with online work.

“If students go full time, it’s three classes each quarter and they can be done in 18 months, as long as they have the prerequisites,” Hughes said, noting it’s a bachelor’s and not an associate degree.

The school plans to launch an ad campaign for the program this fall.

“It’s a high-demand field due to the growing reliance on web technology in homes and workplaces,” said Bob Knight, Clark College president. “One of our responsibilities as a community college is to identify needs in the workplace and work with employers to create programs that produce highly skilled workers. We are eager to welcome students into the program.”

There’s already a huge backlog in the job market for cybersecurity experts, and that need is only expected to grow in coming years, said Kevin Witte, vice president of Economic and Community Development at Clark College.

Pretty much every major business is going to need much heartier network monitoring as the Internet revolution continues into the 21st Century, he added.

“The job market overall is just exploding,” Witte said. “If you have a cybersecurity background with any sort of certification right now, you’ll have a very short job search.”

When you consider how many things are attached to the Internet now – cars, refrigerators and washing machines among them – as well as how many businesses, banks and municipalities have massive sites to interact with the public online, you can see how many threats are out there, he added.

“There are sites where people can take control of your car,” Witte said. “And most consumers are not protected from cyber attack at all.”

Businesses that never considered using cybersecurity are now having to step up and make hires to protect themselves, he said.

“The rise of artificial intelligence and deep learning are also an issue,” Witte said. “We’re seeing cyber attacks already that are run off AI. It’s getting to the point where you get AI attacks, and now the only way to stop it is with your own AI.”

Artificial intelligence can find things, reprogram systems and adapt to its environment, but it still needs a human operator to direct it. And that’s another thing the cybersecurity graduates will have an understanding of when they finish the program.

“Cybersecurity is starting to be just the cost of business,” Witte said.

Hughes said there are several companies just in Vancouver alone looking for cybersecurity experts. And that need increases dramatically over the river in Portland.

“Washington-wide there’s a huge shortage of IT workers,” Hughes said. “They have them now, but a lot of them are approaching retirement age. They expect a huge number of openings in the next five to 10 years.”

The Clark College program will also be tied to graduate programs at the University of Washington – Tacoma and Western Governors University. The college is also working with several local companies to build internship programs for the students, and will be hiring a full-time professor to lead the program, since Hughes is already busy leading the Network Technology Department.

“I already have a $1 million lab in my department, and the college has added about $100,000 worth of equipment for the new program,” Hughes said. “I’m really excited to see everything come together, and I’m very excited to see the results of our search for a recognized cybersecurity expert to lead it.”

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