Alabama cyber security programs ramp up amid rising threats

Cyber security

Protecting the nation’s infrastructure, industries and sensitive information in the digital age is the focus of advanced research taking place across Alabama.

Universities are boosting their research efforts in the field of cyber security, along with programs that produce highly skilled graduates.

Gov. Kay Ivey, second from left, stands with officials from the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, after she presented a $10 million check to expand its Cyber Camp program. The expansion will increase the number of students in cyber-security fields of study and increase awareness of workforce opportunities in Alabama. (Jamie Martin / Governor’s Office)

Gov. Kay Ivey also recently announced the formation of a new high school focusing on cyber technology and engineering, which will be based in Huntsville. The school will prepare Alabama’s top students for jobs in these in-demand fields.

In addition, she gave a $10 million economic development grant to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center to expand the activities of its Cyber Camp, where selected students receive training in technology.

At Auburn University, the new director of the Auburn Cyber Research Center said his goal is to establish a greater focus on economic impact in Alabama.

To accomplish this, the center’s research is focused on improving cyber security in industries that are major economic drivers in the state, such as health care, manufacturing, agriculture, chemicals and more, said David Umphress, an Auburn engineering professor with nearly 40 years of experience in software and systems engineering in academic, military and industrial settings.

“What we’re trying to do is research that is directly in line with improving cyber security within those economic drivers,” he said.

Cyber security center

Manufacturing is a key economic driver in Alabama, and a growing segment is additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing. The practice involves fabricating parts layer-by-layer from metals, plastics or other materials based on a 3-D computer-aided design model.

“There’s an entire digital information exchange on how people build things, and if you change just a little bit of that, you could change the entire product,” Umphress said. “If you were a bad guy, you’d want to get in there and change it just a little so that product doesn’t perform as it should.”

Umphress said he wants Alabama to become the go-to source for companies across these industries when they want to know the best ways to protect their products, processes and other information.

David Umphress serves as director of Auburn University’s Cyber Research Center. (Auburn University)

“We’re trying to put Alabama in the forefront of all of those areas,” he said.

The Auburn Cyber Research Center supports the overall mission of Auburn’s McCrary Institute for Critical Infrastructure Protection and Cyber Systems by conducting research in the field of cyber security.

The mission of the McCrary Institute, named for former Alabama Power Co. CEO Charles McCrary, is to study protection of the nation’s infrastructure, including power grids, transportation systems and supplies of natural resources.

In addition, Auburn was recently awarded a five-year, $4.7 million National Science Foundation CyberCorps grant to help address the shortage of public sector cyber security professionals.

The shortage of skilled cyber security professionals has dramatically come to light amid high-profile consumer data breaches and increasing concern about public infrastructure’s heavy reliance on computers.

“Even up until 10 years ago, we didn’t pay a lot of attention to it. It wasn’t until we reached this global economy, with information driving so many things and so many mobile devices and homes and cars filled with computers,” Umphress said.

“With all that global connectivity, the demand for cyber security surged so quickly, and that’s also driven up the criminal element to try to exploit the weaknesses.”

Expanding emphasis

Elsewhere in Alabama, there are similar efforts to expand cyber security education and research.

The University of Alabama in Huntsville is also participating in the NSF CyberCorps “Scholarships for Service” (SFS) program. The university, which received a $4.2 million grant, recently awarded 10 students full cyber security scholarships.

The scholarships include full tuition and fees, and an annual stipend of $22,500 for undergraduates and $34,000 for graduate students, among other benefits.

The staff of the University of Alabama Cyber Institute includes, from left, Reg Hyde, Dr. Winnie Callahan, John Callahan and Dr. David Mayhew. (University of Alabama)

“UAH has a large number of students across four majors pursuing computing degrees, making it easy to find a cohort of top-notch students for SFS,” said Dr. Tommy Morris, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and director of UAH’s Center for Cybersecurity Research and Education.

“This year we have scholarship recipients from the fields of computer engineering, computer science and information systems, as well as from UAH’s interdisciplinary master’s program in cybersecurity.”

At the University of Alabama Cyber Institute, there have been new additions to the staff, as well as a refocusing of research and academic priorities.

Several researchers have joined the team, allowing the Cyber Institute to branch into the areas of supply chain risk management and secure architecture. The moves also are improving teaching in the area of cyber security.

“We are concentrating on areas where there is tremendous interest or demand among the private sector or government, but where there is little work being done, particularly by universities,” said Reg Hyde, the institute’s executive director.

For example, the Cyber Institute’s effort to study supply chain risk management is headed by Dr. Darryl Williams, a leading expert in the field with more than 20 years of experience in both government and the private sector.

His Supply Chain Risk Management and Analysis Laboratory is focused on the integrity of systems and components that are a part of national security and defense. These programs can be compromised if inferior or doctored components get into the supply chains, and UA is the only university in the nation tackling the full scope of this threat.

The new research efforts have prompted interest in collaborating with UA from the U.S. Department of DefenseFortune 500 companies and the intelligence community, Hyde said.

This story originally appeared on the Alabama Department of Commerce’s Made in Alabama website.

Republished with permission from the Alabama NewsCenter.