University of Cincinnati joins with National Security Agency to fight cyber crime

CINCINNATI – The University of Cincinnati is partnering with the National Security Agency on a program to train students to battle cyber attacks like the one Sony experienced this week.

UC's new connection with the National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security does not mean it is getting into the business of training spies or covert operators, university officials say. But it does spotlight, strengthen and expand UC's already established role in another matter of national security: Fighting cyber crime and cyber terrorism and preventing hackers from stealing your personal information, not to mention business and government secrets.

Cyber terrorism and cyber security is a growing concern for businesses and governments, especially after the attack on Sony by hackers trying to prevent the release of Sony's movie "The Interview."

"We are not going to be doing direct work for NSA. We're going to be taking advantage of their expertise in teaching our students," said Art Davies, marketing coordinator for UC's College of Engineering and Applied Science.

"We like to think we're preparing computer wizards to build the next generation of industrial and commercial systems (to protect data) and not becoming a subsidiary of NSA."

NSA has added UC and four other schools to its National Centers of Academic Excellence in Cyber Operations Program for the 2014-2019 academic years. COP has been offered in eight schools and screens and trains students to enter the cyber security and intelligence workforce, NSA says.

UC has already been training students in protecting data through the College of Engineering and Applied Science and Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Systems, said Art Helmicki, head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computing Systems. 

"We've been doing it in bits and pieces. This is the first time we're bringing it all together," Helmicki said. "I can tell you there has been a lot of interest from our students."

It won't be a degree program – a UC student won't be able to major in cyber security – but anyone who completes the COP will get a certificate, he said.

That figures to be a valuable addition to any resume, even though UC engineering students already have a "100 percent job placement rate," according to Davies. UC engineering graduates typically get starting salaries in the $60,000s and $70,000s, he said.

Not all engineering students will be part of the program, Helmicki said. He said he didn't know how many would participate because "it's brand new."

Students must go through a rigorous application and screening process to get into the program, NSA said. Students who intern at NSA must undergo background checks and obtain temporary, top-secret security clearances.

RELATED: Read NSA's announcement

Students who intern at NSA will "not engage in actual U.S. government intelligence activities," NSA said.

The NSA connection "will ensure our program remains at the cutting edge," Helmicki said. "It will also be a source of scholarship programs and research grants to our students and faculty."

A team of adjunct faculty from Northrop Grumman and GE Aviation already teach courses related to the cyber operation program, Davies said. And it will expand collaboration with the Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

Helmicki said UC's program would cut across many disciplines.

"There will be a full menu of courses and a lot of them will be technical involving hardware and software issues, but we're going to reach out to other colleges because there are many issues involving government, business, ethics and social responsibility," he said.

NSA said it screens programs to make sure they reflect proper legal and ethical standards. 

"In the application process and in all collaboration with selected schools, the importance of integrity and compliance is always paramount," Steven LaFountain Dean of NSA's College of Cyber Operations, said in a statement. "Cyber security technical skills are increasingly important in national defense, but it's equally important to operate within the bounds of the law and Constitution."

Helmicki said calling UC a "spy school" is "probably not accurate and does a disservice to the program."

"It makes a good headline. It's why we're having this conversation. It's an added attraction and it probably will help bring people in. But it's a small part of what the program is about," he said.

"Procter & Gamble, the banking industry, the insurance industry, companies that maintain medical health records – they all have information that needs to be protected.

"We need competent, trained people to do it."

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