With 26,000 cyberattacks each day, a Mississippi university is working to stop this modern crime

Published 1:00 am Tuesday, January 16, 2024

On average, hackers attempt 26,000 cyberattacks per day, or once every three seconds, in the United States.

That statistic alone (by Forbes) should alarm every municipality, company, and private citizen in this country and beyond. At The University of Southern Mississippi (USM), the next generation of cybersecurity professionals receive extensive instruction and hands-on training to combat the ongoing threats.

Just last month USM earned distinction as a Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense (CAE-CD through a program established by The National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security. In the School of Computing Sciences and Computer Engineering (CSCE), faculty consists of researchers known nationally for their innovative work and professionals with real-world industry, military, and government sector work experience.

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According to Cybersecurity Ventures, the global annual cost of cybercrime is predicted to reach $9.5 trillion in 2024.Compounding this is the rising cost of damages resulting from cybercrime, which is expected to reach $10.5 trillion by 2025.

Does the majority of the U.S. public take cybersecurity seriously enough? Dr. Aleise McGowan, CSCE Assistant Professor, believes the answer is multi-layered.

“I think that many people are aware of basic concepts like the need to use strong passwords and the risks of phishing emails, but fewer are knowledgeable about more sophisticated threats or best practices for protecting personal and professional data,” said McGowan. “While there is growing awareness, there is still a substantial portion of the U.S. public and businesses that may not be taking cybersecurity as seriously as they should.”

A report by IBM revealed that the average cost of a data breach was $4.35 million last year, the highest average on record, whereas the average cost of a ransomware attack was $4.54 million. For the 12th year in a row, the United States held the title for the highest cost of a data breach, $5.09M more than the global average.

Cyberattacks have the potential of creating unparalleled damage to a plethora of high-level security interests. One example would be the fragility of financial markets.

“This really is a realistic possibility,” said McGowan. “The financial sector is heavily reliant on digital technologies and interconnected systems. This makes it vulnerable to sophisticated cyber threats. A well-executed cyberattack could potentially disrupt trading platforms, manipulate market data, and even cause of a loss of confidence among investors, which could lead to market instability.”

Another key area of concern is national security. McGowan points out that attackers are targeting critical infrastructure such as power grids, water supplies, and communication networks.

“These attacks have led to increased awareness and efforts to strengthen cybersecurity measures in these critical sectors,” she said. “Attacks on these systems could have far-reaching consequences, including loss of essential services, economic disruption, and even loss of life in extreme cases.”

McGowan adds that other potential dangers include healthcare systems disruptions and even supply chain attacks.

USM offers undergraduate degrees in computer science, information technology, computer engineering, and cybersecurity, along with minors and certificate programs in software engineering, cybersecurity, and computer networking.

 “There is so much talent in Mississippi that can help close the gap on the large number of unfilled jobs in cybersecurity throughout the country,” said Dr. Sarah Lee, CSCE Director. “We are excited to provide a variety of educational pathways that enable our students to enter jobs that offer competitive pay and the opportunity to make a positive impact on society.”

Two programs are offered fully online: the Bachelor of Science in Applied Computer Science and the Bachelor of Applied Science in Cybersecurity. The BAS Cybersecurity degree program launched in fall 2023. Currently, there are 122 students enrolled.

An Accelerated Bachelor of Science to Master of Science pathway is also available, enabling students to take six hours of graduate credit before receiving the Bachelor of Science degree. Additionally, the University offers a Master of Science degree in Computer Science and a PhD in Computational Science.

USM’s Center for Cybersecurity houses the Cyber Innovations Laboratory and the Security and Privacy of Emerging Networks Laboratory which provide collaborative, interdisciplinary research opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students.

At USM, students are being prepared to enter the field of cybersecurity through a comprehensive, hands-on, and industry-relevant curriculum. This preparation involves several key components. These include:

  • Students are taught to use actual tools that are staples in the cybersecurity industry. This includes software like Splunk, which is used for monitoring, searching, analyzing, and visualizing machine-generated big data, and Wireshark, a network protocol analyzer that lets students see what’s happening on a network at a microscopic level
  • Students often engage in project-based learning, where they work on real or simulated cybersecurity projects. This approach helps students understand the complexities and nuances of working in cybersecurity, including strategy development, implementation, and the ethical considerations involved.
  • The curriculum is designed to align with industry certifications and standards, such as CompTIA Security+. This alignment ensures that the education students receive is relevant and up-to-date with current industry practices.

McGowan stresses that as part of her curriculum she integrates extensive hands-on activities where students actively engage in tasks such as analyzing logs, detecting networks intrusions, and responding to simulated cybersecurity incidents.

“These activities provide students with practical experience that closely mirrors real-world scenarios, thereby enhancing their readiness for professional challenges,” she said.

As governments, companies and ordinary citizens implement measures designed to thwart cyberattacks, cunning hackers keep finding ways to circumvent safeguards. Staying one step ahead of them is a crucial and non-stop challenge.

“The better we get, the better they get,” said McGowan. “Continuous education and training across the board is paramount. This includes both the general public and cybersecurity professionals. Creating a culture of cybersecurity awareness where best practices are second nature can help in preemptively addressing many vulnerabilities that hackers might exploit.”

McGowan notes that building strong partnerships with industry and government agencies allows for the sharing of knowledge, resources, and best practices. Such collaborations can provide insights into real-world challenges and emerging threats, enabling institutions to adapt their strategies proactively.

Last, but certainly not least, she emphasizes the importance of research and innovation to stem the tide of cyberattacks.

“Engaging in cutting-edge research to develop new security methodologies, tools, and technologies is the key to us staying one step ahead,” said McGowan. “This involves moving past reacting to existing threats, into anticipating future trends in cyberattacks and preparing defenses accordingly.”

To learn more about USM’s School of Computing Sciences and Computer Engineering, call 601.266.4949.