NSA launches cyber security program for college students

The US National Security Agency has launched a National Centers of Academic Excellence in Cyber Operations Program to ultimately yield a larger pool of professionals with expertise in this area.

An outgrowth of the President’s National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education, the program also supports the government’s work to better protect cyberspace. It is designed to identify institutions that offer a deeply technical, interdisciplinary curriculum centered on fields such as computer science, computer engineering, and electrical engineering. In addition, it will offer some participants opportunities to apply their learning or enhance their teaching in cutting-edge summer seminars at NSA.

After a rigorous application and screening process, NSA selected this month the first four schools to receive the CAE-Cyber Operations designation for the 2012-2013 academic year: Dakota State University, South Dakota; the Naval Postgraduate School, California; Northeastern University, Massachusetts; and the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma.

The program will complement 145 existing centers of academic excellence (CAEs) in research and information assurance education, jointly overseen by the agency and the Department of Homeland Security.

Many of the nation’s colleges and universities offer courses or promote projects in cybersecurity. NSA’s new program differs in that it integrates the relevant academic disciplines, with a focus on technology and the techniques associated with specialized cyber operations – collection, exploitation, and response, for example. Each new center is also required to include an academic unit about the legal and ethical issues in this area.

Participating students and faculty members will not engage in actual U.S. government intelligence activities.

Rather, the primary goal is to expose students to the scientific and intellectual foundation of cyber operations, giving them a glimpse of how such knowledge could be applied in innovative cyber careers with the government. Seminar students and faculty members, who will be hired as temporary NSA employees, will be required to undergo background checks and obtain top-secret security clearances.

Strengthening partnerships with academia is another key goal.

Like the agency’s other centers, those in the cyber operations program will be evaluated annually. Designations are for five years and schools across the country can compete each year to join the effort.

“The nation increasingly needs professionals with highly technical cyber skills to help keep America safe today – and to help the country meet future challenges and adapt with greater agility,” said Steven LaFountain, an NSA technical leader involved with the program.

“When it comes to national security, there is no substitute for a dedicated, immensely talented workforce,” he added. “This effort will sow even more seeds.”

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