Nearly $6M will help UArizona grow national cybersecurity workforce

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Daily life is happening increasingly online, and there aren't enough cybersecurity professionals in the U.S. to keep everyone safe online.

That's the basic problem that nearly $6 million in new funding will help the University of Arizona's nationally renowned cyber operations program to address in the coming years.

The UArizona College of Applied Science and Technology, where the program is based, received the funding in the fall from Arizona's Technology and Research Initiative Fund. The voter-supported fund helps the state's three public universities address issues critical to the state or larger society, including workforce development.

In a world held together by information delivered over the internet, cyber operations or cybersecurity professionals are charged with protecting their employers' online networks, said Jason Denno, director of cyber, intelligence and information operations at the College of Applied Science and Technology.

Students in the college's cyber operations program learn to do that from both an offensive and defensive position. In addition to learning how to defend against cybersecurity adversaries known as "bad actors," Denno said, students also learn to act like the bad actors to better understand – and defend against – attacks.

But the outlook for the nation's cybersecurity workforce shows a significant gap between how many jobs need filled and the number of people qualified for them, Denno said. From 2019 to 2020, the number of unfilled cybersecurity jobs increased from more than 350,000 to more than 521,000, Denno said. Current estimates place the gap at more than 600,000 unfilled jobs.

To fix that, the college aims to drastically increase the number of students its cyber operations program can accommodate.

"We're trying to make a fundamental impact on the security posture of the U.S. – that's what our graduates are going to do," Denno said.

The cyber operations program, which features both online components and in-person opportunities at the college's campus in Sierra Vista, began in 2016 with three students, Denno said. At the beginning of this semester, the program had about 900 students. About 250 students have graduated from the program since 2016.

The new funding, Denno said, will allow the program to hire more faculty and staff, with the goal of boosting its enrollment to 2,000 students by the end of 2025, and to 5,000 students by the end of 2030. It will also provide for IT infrastructure upgrades, Denno said.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has only underscored our reliance on the internet, and therefore our reliance on cyber operations professionals," said University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins. "I am proud that our nationally recognized cyber operations program is equipped to help solve the shortage of these professionals, and I am thankful the state is partnering with us in that effort through this funding."

'Reverse-engineered' to be among the best

With the new funding, the college hopes to build on the successes its cyber operations program has already seen in the short time since it began. In 2018, less than two years after the program launched, it was designated a Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Operations by the National Security Agency. Only 24 institutions nationwide have that designation.

The reasons for that recognition go back to the founding of the program, Denno said.

"We reverse-engineered the cyber degree from the NSA's most technical standards," he said. "We created this program from the ground up to be the most technical set of knowledge, skills and abilities for our students."

To that end, the college has built a suite of tools and programs that deliver real-world lessons to cyber operations students.

Those programs include CyberApolis, a virtual online world with more than 15,000 online personas that use artificial intelligence to write emails, post to social media, browse the web, buy goods in online stores and more. CyberApolis replicates the real internet, providing students with a lifelike cyber operations training environment and a safe place to run offensive cyber operations drills. Doing so on the open internet, Denno said, could amount to a federal crime.

"We needed this synthetic, live environment that mimicked the internet, that felt completely real as a student and that was a safe environment where they couldn't do anything wrong that they would get in trouble for," Denno said, adding that CyberApolis will undergo upgrades as a result of the new funding.

Denno also pointed to the college's partnership with the city of Sierra Vista, which allows cyber operations students to behave like nefarious hackers and "attack" the city's networks to determine vulnerabilities. The students then compile a report to show where the city can improve its cyber defenses.

"The security awareness of the city has risen dramatically," Denno said.

University Information Technology Services at UArizona has also taken on cyber operations students as interns, so they can get hands-on experience helping to defend the university's networks.

"Our students' hands-on experience is embedded in our AI-driven virtual environment, from their first class through their required capstone project," said Gary Packard, dean of the College of Applied Science and Technology. "This ensures we meet the NSA's highest technical standards to develop graduates with real-world cyber security capability on day one for the government and corporate cybersecurity workforce."