Do suspicious emails from unknown senders make you nervous? Can you swipe your credit card or make online purchases without worrying your financial information and identity are at risk because a company’s database may be hacked?
Such anxiety is commonplace and understandable given cybersecurity crime rises as technology is increasingly incorporated into our everyday lives. The scope and consequences of such criminal acts is staggering.
Cybersecurity Ventures predicts cybercrime will cost $6 trillion globally this year, with that number expected to reach $10.5 trillion annually in just four years. The firm, which is the world’s leading researcher on the global cyber economy, also warns that ransomware damages will climb to $265 billion annually by 2031.
Thankfully there are experts to combat the threat. Some of these next-generation specialists are preparing to fight cybercrime in an Illinois State program that is rapidly growing to help meet an enormous need.
Nasdaq revealed in a report on the shortage of cybersecurity professionals released in May that 3.1 million additional employees are needed globally, with the U.S. short nearly 890,000 workers. The result of these vacancies is increased risk for companies and consumers, and exceptional career opportunities.
There are approximately 400 students enrolled in ISU’s relatively new cybersecurity undergraduate major offered through the School of Information Technology in the College of Applied Science and Technology (CAST). The program began as a sequence in 2007, was elevated to a degree in 2016, and has quickly gained prestige.
The fact ISU excels in preparing future leaders for the field is confirmed by the University’s designation by the National Security Agency as a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense. Tied to Illinois State’s Center for Cybersecurity Research and Education, the honor places the campus among leading institutions in the U.S. for cybersecurity education.
The center within the school promotes research and education to protect people, infrastructure, business, and institutions from a range of threats and attacks. Part of that prevention involves gaining a better understanding of cybersecurity threats and developing strategies to minimize consequences of attacks. That mission fits perfectly with the focus of the degree, which emphasizes security basics, cryptography, ethical hacking, security defenses, and forensics.
Overseeing both the hands-on academic program and the center’s research initiatives is Dr. Shaoen Wu, who is the inaugural State Farm Endowed Chair of Cybersecurity. The prestigious position was established by State Farm Insurance Companies as part of a $3 million investment in the University’s cybersecurity initiatives.
“I was so thrilled to be offered this endowed position and am grateful to State Farm,” said Wu, who explains that the gift provides the support necessary to plan without the worry of securing grants before starting initiatives. He brings plenty of enthusiasm and the needed expertise to take ISU’s program forward.
A native of China, Wu completed an undergraduate and master’s degree before working three years with Lucent Technologies—the No. 1 telecommunication company in the world. He came to the U.S. for his doctoral work, completing a Ph.D. in computer science and software engineering at Auburn University in Alabama.
“I chose industry first and worked as a scientist at ADTRAN for one year,” Wu said. “That confirmed my passion for academia. I like to talk to students and especially share my experience and observations.”
He did both while at the University of Southern Mississippi and later Ball State University, where he was the director of the Security and Software Engineering Research Center.
He left that position to join Illinois State, arriving with an impressive research record. Wu’s work has been supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Cisco, Lockheed Martin, Intel, Dell, and others.
Published in numerous scholarly journals, Wu’s research focuses in part on cyber and information security, artificial intelligence (AI), and the Internet of Things (IoT). The term refers to objects such as embedded sensors that connect devices and exchange data. One common IoT example is Alexa, the virtual assistant used in myriad homes. Such technology is continually under production and eagerly embraced by consumers, intensifying security challenges.
“Cybersecurity is not a new field.” Wu said. “But it has increasingly become active on the agenda of every industry because more and more devices are introduced. Each new device creates a new surface of potential security problems.”
Artificial intelligence is one example Wu cites as to why research and discovery must remain a priority in the field, as crime has escalated from hacks caused by careless individual user behavior to sophisticated breaches of systems by criminals who are also AI experts.
ISU prepares graduates to counter the crooks by teaching students to monitor systems, assess risks, and implement solutions already discovered. “The other aspect is creating those solutions, which could take years. This is where research in cybersecurity is crucial. There are always new problems and different attacks that require better solutions.”
Beyond the classroom, ISU is equipping students to enter the workforce by having them participate in research with faculty and compete in activities that sharpen their skills, such as the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition. They attend security conventions including CyberCon to gain knowledge from respected professionals and security corporations. The Security Club, a registered student organization on campus, allows students in the major to form a strong peer network.
The University’s program will only improve with time. Excited to have four professors and 14 students already involved in the center, Wu envisions expanding faculty and student scholarship. His desire is to create more research opportunities to involve students and establish a collaborative outreach in the community. He is especially eager for such opportunities with K-12 students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics courses. He expects to soon increase the teaching faculty from three to five, and is excited that the program is now consolidated in a newly created space at Julian Hall.
Wu is confident the University has the resources and commitment to continue meeting a universal need for cybersecurity experts. He is not deterred by the daunting deficiency in workers or the scope of the financial losses internationally. Instead Wu stands on his Christian faith as he pursues his passion to prepare young people who will be ready to bridge that treacherous gab between the convenience of technology and ever-present risks.
State Farm gift sparks new facility
As one of the most high-tech majors on campus, the cybersecurity program needs a cutting-edge space for learning and teaching. Illinois State has provided just that by using a portion of the $3 million State Farm Insurance Companies gift to create a new facility at Julian Hall.
Classes that were scattered throughout Old Union previously are now consolidated in 26,000 gross square feet that had been a parking lot. The $6 million project that was completed in May provides three classrooms with moveable partitions, two smart rooms for collaboration, an additional conference room, restrooms, and a lobby.
Converting a parking garage into academic space was challenging work that consisted of demolishing the entire parking level. The facility was built in time for the semester’s start and students returning to in-person classes in August.
“Many students are still amazed we have such a space,” said Wu said. “Thanks to State Farm, we had part of the funding for a new facility.”
Both faculty and students are thrilled to be teaching and learning in the space with telecommunications data systems, monitors, and projectors. “This new facility provides the latest technologies and space to train our cybersecurity workforce of very demanded skills,” Wu said. “This facility also provides our program in outreach to support external units like Bloomington-Normal STEM Club (BNSTEM) to have activities at ISU here.”
He is grateful, noting the program now has the physical resources to continue its growth and meet the challenges of educating future cybersecurity professionals.