The Cybersecurity Center is located in Engineering IV (building 192).
Computer hacking, cryptography classes, a cutting-edge Cyber Lab — Cal Poly’s new initiative in cyber security sounds like it belongs in the latest James Bond movie. Cybersecurity, or the protection of online information and systems from attack, is a quickly growing field that has become essential with the progression of networked technology.
Imagine America’s enemies hacking into our critical infrastructure and shutting down the nation’s electricity grid, or gaining access to highly confidential intelligence files. These threats are real, but thanks to the new Cybersecurity Center, current Cal Poly students will be among the first generation of online defenders.
According to Zachary Peterson, an assistant computer science professor, the plan is to build a universitywide center for investigating cybersecurity topics.
“So much of the things we like to protect are connected to the Internet,” he said. “It certainly extends beyond computer science to things like economics or other forms of engineering, certainly electronic engineering, psychology, business … I’m not aware of another institution like us that has made such a universitywide effort into cybersecurity.”
Peterson is the center’s first hire. In January, he will be teaching two courses: an undergraduate introduction to cybersecurity and a graduate-level computer security course. He is also working on developing and expanding the curriculum.
“The introduction course is a mile wide and an inch deep, so there are a lot of different topics, but none too in-depth,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll lessen the prerequisites required for that course, so that pretty much any sophomore or junior will be able to enroll in it as an elective, and it will act as a gateway course to the follow-on electives.”
Next fall, Peterson may be teaching a course in cryptographic engineering, which involves building secure systems in cryptography. In the spring, the anti-virus software corporation McAfee is offering a malware analysis course, sending some of their top engineers and malware researchers to Cal Poly.
“Over the next two years, we’re implementing five or six more courses,” said Ignatios Vakalis, chair of the computer science department. “We’re currently looking for another professor, ideally with a specialization in critical infrastructure. The faster we hire new professors, the sooner we can implement those courses.”
The classes will be taught in the Northrop Grumman Cyber Lab. Northrop Grumman, a leading global security company, donated approximately $150,000 for the electronic infrastructure for the lab and, in Vakalis’ opinion, “hundreds of thousands of dollars” worth of expertise and time. Cal Poly spent approximately $200,000 renovating the space.
The lab, which is one of the most advanced in the nation, has three rooms, 32 workstations, projectors and a presentation center. Mark Root, Northrop Grumman corporate director of media relations, described it as a hands-on learning environment.
“It enables the instructor and the students to conduct experiments and cyber challenges and to create dynamic opportunities for the students to learn about the cyber-related issues industry deals with on a daily basis,” he said. “In cooperation with the faculty, we have jointly developed cyber lab experiments to help the students apply the knowledge from the classroom to the lab environment, providing practical experience they can apply directly once they graduate.”
Northrop Grumman will benefit by having the opportunity to hire Cal Poly graduates.
“There is a huge need to educate students in the computing fields and have an expertise in cybersecurity,” Vakalis said. “There’s a tremendous number of jobs out there and very few people to fill those positions.”
The corporation invested in Cal Poly due to its extraordinary reputation and the high percentage of domestic students.
“More than 95 percent of students are U.S. citizens,” Vakalis said. “That is key, because in the area of cybersecurity, some students may pursue the process of clearance and getting to deeper areas where top clearance would be required.”
He said they are always looking for more partners and are open to the possibility of partnering with any corporation.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated Zachary Peterson is an associate professor. He is, in fact, an assistant professor.