Better Education is the Key to Our Digital Defense Problem

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The past several years have brought many changes to the educational and political landscape, but none are potentially so severe and world-changing as the comeback of internet espionage and digital warfare.

The vulnerabilities faced in today’s cybersecurity

Just within the past five years, cyber-attacks have had a massive impact on international and local affairs, including everything from independent hackers demanding ransoms from entire cities for the return of their municipal data to governments attacking other governments, spreading propaganda, and stealing political information through the use of phishing attacks and the like. It’s an uncomfortable truth but increasing amounts of almost cold-war style proxy battles are being fought in the digital realm, and many are beginning to agree that the solution lies within the hands of higher education institutions.

Education rushing to fill the gap calling for professionals

Many are already beginning to respond to the growing need for trained and educated cyber security professionals, offering cyber security courses at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. Many experts and educational professionals are arguing that the only way to bolster national security in the digital realm is to focus more intensely on training and education, starting from the youngest ages possible.

For instance, in the United Kingdom, experts are talking about a proverbial “army of cyber kids,” thanks to a newly formed national program that intends to find and recruit young talent for the purpose of training these kids to be cyber security experts. Children are recruited around the ages of 14 to 18, then trained in a series of programs and educated about the possibilities of future employment in the field of cyber security. The aim is to build up a force of educated young people who can enter the field and bolster the industry, which at the moment is lacking in both quality and quantity of workers. 

The criticism faced by academic institutions

The focus on education has its detractors, however. Despite the fact that the number of jobs in the cyber security industry with no employees to fill them is expected to reach close to 2 million within the next few years, critics of the proposed expansions in the educational system to cater to cyber security needs point out that the overwhelming majority of current cyber security experts are, in fact, self taught. However, whether this is a result of a lack of opportunities for formal schooling in the discipline or for some other reason are still unclear. In any case, even the most fervent opposition presented by these critics is rather timid when all things are considered, and even they admit that a stronger focus on educational curricula focusing on cyber security would be beneficial for everyone.

Security risks start from the education system

In the meantime, the arguments for strengthening and funding a dedicated cyber security curriculum, along with attacks on various entities both public and private, have been increasing. Ironically, the education sector itself is a particularly vulnerable target for aspiring hackers looking for treasure troves of data to sell on the open market. The reasons are fairly simple: universities and colleges tend to have fairly relaxed cyber security protocols compared with similar targets like government institutions and hospitals, and universities store an incredible amount of data about their students, from social security numbers to home addresses, phone numbers, payment information, and even medical records obtained through the university clinics that are so common on today’s campuses. In 2014 alone, almost one million individual records were stolen from hacked university databases.

The value of data continues to fuel the hacking problem

Student information isn’t the only thing of value that can be obtained through hacks like these. The Equifax breach comes immediately to mind, whereby millions of Americans’ personal information was stolen and is likely still floating around, being sold back and forth. Universities are a massive target, however, and the more money there is in the university system, the more potential hackers stand to gain. Universities field millions of hacking attempts on a weekly basis, and potential targets (other than confidential student information) could range from test and homework answers to potentially sensitive research information.

Since the revelations that Russia had interfered in an election in the United States by providing hacked emails to a pseudo-journalism outlet called wikileaks, cyber security has become a much bigger focus of educational spending and discussions, while politicians grill the leaders of the tech industry on what they see as their role in the defense (or lack thereof) of critical institutions and demographics in the population. The hacked emails were obtained via phishing attacks that exploited human, rather than technical, weaknesses, impersonating official correspondence and tricking the target into clicking a link leading to malicious code.

It’s for that reason that many experts are targeting people who do not intend to be experts in the field, trying to form a base of general educational curricula that can be delivered as more of a life skill or as part of a continuing education program than a higher-level graduate or undergraduate degree focus.

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