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UC Students Create Cyberattack Scenarios To Improve Cybersecurity

Students in a UC Forward seminar work in teams to approach this growing security issue from their diverse fields of study.

Date: 3/5/2013 12:00:00 AM
By: Dawn Fuller
Phone: (513) 556-1823
Photos By: Provided by Mark Stockman

UC ingot   “We need to get into the way you’re going to technically attack.” Richard Harknett, head of the University of Cincinnati’s Department of Political Science, offered input to the first of four small teams of UC students that are developing cyberattack scenarios – currently “top secret” – to ultimately explore how to create a secure cyberspace. The UC Forward Cyberattack Red Team Collaborative Seminar is co-taught by Harknett and Mark Stockman, associate professor of information technology.
UC Forward class
UC Forward Cyberattack Red Team Collaborative Seminar

“We’re going to run this on the tabletop (exercises) for the final, so the more you give us, the more we will prejudice the tabletop to your advantage,” advised Stockman, as students began outlining their attack scenarios.

The course is underway just as news broke recently on a number of national incidents, including the hacking of The New York Times’ computer network and the hacking of Burger King’s Twitter account. The American International Group, Inc. (AIG) reported results of a survey that found that more than 85 percent of corporate executives surveyed were more concerned about cyberthreats than other major business risks, including loss of income and investment risk. Also in February, President Barack Obama issued an executive order aimed at improving cybersecurity.

In efforts to explore how to strengthen cybersecurity, the UC Forward seminar aims to understand how it can be undermined. As they divided into teams, students blended the talents learned in their individual fields of study to discover and exploit vulnerabilities by developing cyberattack scenarios that involve behavioral and technical manipulations. As they approach the end of the semester, they’ll be assigned to be a defender for one of the other projects. Each team will be evaluated on how well they’re prepared for the attack and how well they handle the scenario.

UC Forward is a teaching and learning initiative that brings together students, faculty and an array of businesses and agencies – each from different perspectives – to contribute to the social and economic value of the local, regional and global communities.

“Part of the dilemma that we face in cybersecurity is that the partnership between government and private industry has been pretty problematic, because most private companies do not want to detail their vulnerability,” says Harknett.

The Cyberattack Red Team Collaborative Seminar sets goals for students to become more technically competent, analytically diverse and collaboratively oriented. Students in the class represent a range of majors including IT, criminal justice, business and political science.

“I always looked at cybercrime from the IT side, so this has been an interesting exploration of the human relations side of the issue, and the political and physical concerns of cybersecurity,” says UC senior Lane Hart, a Kolodzik Business Scholar and information systems and finance major from Lewisburg, Ohio. “Working with our external partners, we’ve seen such a large array of experts coming at this from different perspectives, but it’s crucial for all of us to get on the same page and understand the same language between business and IT. This course has been a really good exercise, because it’s modeling what happens in the real world,” says Hart, who will be heading to New York after graduation to work for IBM’s global business services division.

Farooq Alkhateeb, a UC senior major in information technology and minor in business administration, says he first became fascinated by the IT field when he was in middle school in Independence, Ky. –  the same time that he started building his first computer. Alkhateeb is also founder of the UC student organization, Cybercrime Cats, which aims to cultivate the next generation of cybercrime security professionals.

For him, the UC Forward course was a perfect fit with his interests. “I think the biggest insight I’ve gained is how beneficial it can be for students from different majors to collaborate with each other,” says Alkhateeb. “We have to plan out a cyberattack project and define our goals, and each member of our group is contributing in regard to the specialty of his or her major. For instance, the political science major is researching the country, and the criminal justice student is studying the security of that country.”

The UC Forward initiative strives to position the university as a leader in transforming 21st century education.  UC Forward is directly aligned with the principles outlined in UC’s Academic Master Plan, emphasizing real-world problem-based learning, collaboration across disciplines and community engagement.

“This expertise represents a growing field,” says Stockman. “The CIA was recruiting really hard on cybersecurity during a campus visit last term, and other corporations need cybersecurity professionals. The reality is that most of us are more likely to be a victim of a cybercrime – ID theft or hacking into our bank account – than a physical crime, and most of the time, we personally don’t have any recourse against such an attack.”

“The course certainly applies toward work force development, because we are putting these students in real-world cybersecurity environments and advancing their careers in this area,” says Harknett.

External partners that have made presentations to the UC Forward Cyberattack Red Team Collaborative Seminar include the United States CyberCommand, Department of Homeland Security, GE Infrastructure, Kettering Police Department and Chicago-based Plante Morgan PLLC.

The Office of the Provost reports that over the current academic year, more than 600 UC students have participated in a UC Forward course. More than 30 such courses were offered over the 2012/13 academic year. The Office of the Provost is now offering $80,000 in faculty grants to support up to 10 additional interdisciplinary projects for the 2013/14 academic year.