NSA Launches Cyber Operations Program

New Centers of Excellence to Fill Gaps in Security Education
NSA Launches Cyber Operations Program

The U.S. National Security Agency has launched a new Cyber Operations Program at four select universities to fill gaps in existing cybersecurity curriculum and technical training.

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The primary goal of the Center of Academic Excellence (CAE) in Cyber Operations is to produce a larger pool of professionals with deeper technical expertise in inter-disciplinary areas of computer science, computer engineering and electrical engineering.

The Cyber Operations program will specifically train students for intelligence, military and law enforcement jobs, which require extra education in operating and protecting networks against enemy attacks. For example, students will learn to defend against the new generation of Stuxnet.

"The program will focus on the hardcore fundamentals of cyber offense and defense strategies," says Steven LaFountain, NSA technical leader for the CAE program.

The traditional CAEs include programs focused in information assurance education (CAE-IAE) and research (CAE-R).

However, NSA finds that many of the traditional CAE schools lack courses in emerging areas like reverse engineering, device security and malware analysis. In addition, schools do not have resources or focus to produce the quality of technical folks needed by the government to protect critical infrastructure.

"We found a lot of schools weren't updating their curriculum and keeping up with emerging technologies," LaFountain says.

Gaps in Education

According to LaFountain two current gaps in schools are:

  • Technical Expertise: Traditional CAEs are not equipped with courses or infrastructure in high technology areas such as forensics, embedded systems and mobile communication. Therefore, students coming out of these programs often must be re-educated, LaFountain says. He also finds that students lack basic technical skills like low level programming and understanding of how an operating system interacts with hardware. "A lot of schools teach Java and other application languages, but totally leave out the basics," he says.
  • Specific trade craft of Cyber Operations: Existing CAEs are behind in training students in areas such as incident response, intelligence gathering, latest hacking tactics and cyber protection strategies. Their focus is very broad within cybersecurity, LaFountain says. With the Cyber Operations program, NSA intends to focus specifically in emerging technology areas, legal and engineering aspects related to IT security.

"Our need is different now," says Sujeet Shenoi, professor of computer science and chemical engineering at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma. "We require people with very strong, foundational grounding who can solve hard problems that are highly technical in nature."

Stringent Standards

Of the 20 universities that applied, only four received the new Cyber Operations designation for the year 2012-2013. The four schools are: Dakota State University in South Dakota, the Naval Postgraduate School in California, Northeastern University in Massachusetts, and the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma.

These institutions were chosen because they offer a deeply technical, interdisciplinary curriculum within specific fields of computer science, computer engineering and electrical engineering.

"In my life, I have not been through such a rigorous evaluation," Shenoi says. "It is amazing for the NSA to physically go to 20 universities and spend time looking at everything."

Shenoi and his team members were scrutinized by NSA staff on their two-day visit to the campus. NSA interviewed professors, students and spent substantial time reviewing courses, projects and lab infrastructure related to cybersecurity, engineering and operations.

The traditional Centers of Academic Excellence are not subject to such scrutiny, Shenoi says. Schools typically require sending information to the NSA detailing their program, faculty and infrastructure, which is relatively easy.

Benefit to Students

Being part of this program will provide direct opportunities for students to work for premiere security and intelligence agencies and on projects in the most exclusive areas of IT security.

"The program is highly sensitive and we cannot afford to take random people," Shenoi says. The four universities have enrolled students for this program based on criteria such as security clearance, work ethics, technical skills, creativity and desire to serve the country.

Students will be eligible to receive scholarship through the Scholarship for Service Program and will need to abide by the same requirements as in the case of traditional Centers of Academic Excellence.

Like the NSA's other Centers of Academic Excellence, those in the Cyber Operations program will be evaluated annually. Designations are for five years, and schools across the country can compete each year to join the effort.

About the Author

Upasana Gupta

Upasana Gupta

Contributing Editor, CareersInfoSecurity

Upasana Gupta oversees CareersInfoSecurity and shepherds career and leadership coverage for all Information Security Media Group's media properties. She regularly writes on career topics and speaks to senior executives on a wide-range of subjects, including security leadership, privacy, risk management, application security and fraud. She also helps produce podcasts and is instrumental in the global expansion of ISMG websites by recruiting international information security and risk experts to contribute content, including blogs. Upasana previously served as a resource manager focusing on hiring, recruiting and human resources at Icons Inc., an IT security advisory firm affiliated with ISMG. She holds an MBA in human resources from Maharishi University of Management, Fairfield, Iowa.

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