SMU Cybersecurity Program Trains Tomorrows Data Defenders

In SMU classrooms, students learn the dark arts of launching cyberattacks in order to fight them.

They investigate data breaches, build secure networks and test their defenses with controlled attacks. They study computer science, psychology, economics and policy. They hope to beat the bad guys by staying a few steps ahead.

Southern Methodist University and other universities offer cybersecurity classes to students who are increasingly aware of digital risks and data breaches. In the past few weeks alone, hackers have stolen credit card data from Home Depot and leaked private photos of celebrities.

“We need to get ahead of the problem. It isn’t going away,” said Fred Chang, director of SMU’s Darwin Deason Institute for Cyber Security and a former research director of the National Security Agency. “Cyberspace is getting to be a bad neighborhood.”

SMU is one of 44 institutions that are designated National Centers of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance/Cyber Defense. They receive the designation from the NSA and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

SMU was first awarded the designation in 2006, and it was recently renewed. The University of Texas at San Antonio and University of Texas at Dallas also hold the distinction.

Cybersecurity graduates go on to careers at law enforcement offices, banks, defense companies and government agencies, among others. They create and maintain secure networks, hardware and software. They aid police with digital forensics that crack cyberattacks or other crimes, such as child pornography and murder.

Chang said he was approached by a 9-year-old boy who asked why his family’s computer had been hacked. “People’s attention has been raised about it,” Chang said. “And then they think, ‘Maybe that’s a good area for my child to study.’”

SMU professor Suku Nair started the cybersecurity program after he heard from worried telecommunications companies in the late 1990s. He began researching security risks and taught his first cybersecurity class in 2000.

Nair begins each class with discussion of the day’s news. “There’s always something — four or five news items,” he said. “That grounds them in the importance of the course they’re taking.”

Nair, who is chairman of the computer science and engineering department, has added cybersecurity courses each year.

This year, SMU created the Darwin Deason Institute for Cyber Security with a $7.75 million gift from Deason, the founder of Affiliated Computer Services. It aims to address the shortage of cybersecurity professionals.

Nair said some defense firms send their employees to SMU for graduate degrees or ask professors to teach courses at their companies. The “cat and mouse game” makes cybersecurity an never-ending challenge, he said.

SMU offers a master’s degree in security engineering, and undergraduates can specialize in security engineering. More than half of the doctoral students in computer science and computer engineering are researching cybersecurity topics.

Marie Vasek, a doctoral student, began studying cybersecurity after an adviser noticed her love of puzzles. The same principles applied.

“A lot of solving puzzles is scanning through it and looking for patterns,” she said. “I like that there’s no easy answer.”

Patrick Brannen, an SMU senior and computer science major, decided to specialize in security engineering because of its job prospects. He leads the Security Special Interest Group, a student club at SMU that holds weekly meetings and participates in cybersecurity competitions.

“Security is becoming more and more of a big issue as our world becomes more connected,” Brannen said. “It’s a big problem we need to tackle. I find solutions to that interesting.”

He’s stepped up his digital habits, too, by picking tougher passwords and closely monitoring his online accounts.

Nair said the university’s program emphasizes ethics since computer science skills can be used to fight crimes — and commit them.

“We are going to teach ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys,’ but the faith is that 80 percent or more are ‘good guys,’” he said.

Follow Melissa Repko on Twitter at @melissa_repko.

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