Guest Opinion: UMass is a line of defense from cyber-attacks

March 26, 2015

Robert L. Caret

It has been called the “undeclared war of the 21st century,” the threat that jeopardizes national security and leaves us vulnerable in our personal lives to assaults in such critical areas as finances and privacy.

The increasing number of cyber-attacks on our digital infrastructure prompted President Obama to make cybersecurity a national priority, earmarking $14 billion in new research dollars, and unveiling new federal initiatives in his State of the Union address.

It’s time we matched this federal offensive with a state push. With its leading high tech companies and vast educational resources, Massachusetts could be an even more critical asset in our nation’s cyber defense, but we need a high level of commitment and collaboration between government, education and business to get there.

Great things happen when industry, academia and government combine forces, as evidenced by the success of the Life Sciences Center, the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center and the Innovation Institute at Mass Tech — centers of excellence that spur innovation and leverage industry and federal research investment.

One way we can move forward in Massachusetts is in partnership with the Advanced Cyber Security Center, a four-year-old industry, higher education and government consortium that seeks to ensure that Massachusetts has the research and educational strengths it needs to be a global cybersecurity leader. Currently, Massachusetts ranks ninth nationally in the number of cybersecurity job postings and is fourth on a per-capita basis.

Cyber-crime had its name up in lights when Sony Pictures endured an epic hacking several months ago — but what happened to Sony has been happening to others for a long time. And undoing the damage, like making a Hollywood blockbuster, is getting more and more expensive, with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington estimating that cyber-attacks and economic espionage now costing the world economy $445 billion and the U.S. $100 billion per year. Closer to home, nearly one in five Massachusetts residents had their personal or financial information stolen in data breaches in 2013.

Nationally, the need for cybersecurity professionals grew 74 percent between 2007 and 2013, according to a report by Burning Glass Technologies. In 2013, an estimated 300,000 of these jobs went unfulfilled — and the shortfall is expected to increase exponentially as the nation faces more data breaches and threats in the years ahead.

A shortage of talent in the cybersecurity field begins with a lack of interest in science and math in general. In Massachusetts, the state has prioritized education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) at every level from Pre-K to vocational schools. Data has shown progress in improving test scores, but there is still work to do, particularly in attracting girls and women to the field and in closing the achievement gap in Latino and African American students. All states — including Massachusetts — need to widen the pool of prospective computer science majors by reaching our underserved neighborhoods.

We need to get kids interested in science and technology, but we also need to keep them interested through college, instead of dropping out or switching to other majors. When industries team up with academia to offer access to internships and hands-on experience, they make course work relevant and provide incentive for students to stick with difficult course material. A point of pride for me is knowing that UMass is working across the educational spectrum to get more students, particularly students from under-represented groups, into the STEM fields.

Massachusetts has the good fortune to being the home to a number of private and public universities with top-rated cybersecurity degree programs — UMass among them. In an upcoming meeting of the Advanced Cyber Security Research Center, to be held at UMass Lowell in April, six of these universities will be asking for industry input as they develop future academic programs to keep pace with an ever-changing, ever-growing field. Discussions about collaboration between academia and industry will explore topics such as apprenticeships and industry funding.

As important as this conversation will be, the meeting takes on additional significance because it represents exactly the kind of collaboration we need to move Massachusetts to the head of the cybersecurity class.

By all accounts, the costs that cybersecurity attacks impose on our economy and lives are only going to escalate in the next decade. By bringing industry, government and universities together to advance research and educate our workforce to the highest standards, we stand the best chance of outwitting the hackers and attackers who mean us harm.

Robert L. Caret is president of the University of Massachusetts.

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