NYIT series looks to arm tomorrow’s cyber-defenders

Numbers game: NYIT students will get a hands-on lesson in codes and ciphers May 5, when the Old Westbury campus hosts the first event in the Cybersecurity Challenge Series.

A sizeable grant from Northrop Grumman and a pressing need – the “coming cyberwars,” is how Nada Anid somewhat glumly termed it – have spurred the New York Institute of Technology to action.

The mission is to prepare tomorrow’s professionals for the 21st century’s cybersecurity challenges, and for NYIT, the mission starts today – or at least May 5, when the university’s Old Westbury campus hosts the first event in the NYIT Cybersecurity Challenge Series.

The first of several cybersecurity-themed affairs to be funded by a recent $200,000 Northrup Grumman grant ($100,000 earmarked for cyber-training, $100,000 for forensic-analysis efforts), the event – sponsored by the university’s Entrepreneurship and Technology Innovation Center – will introduce participating teams of two to four NYIT students each to cryptography, or techniques (in this case, digital ones) for securing communications that may be intercepted by adversarial parties.

The day-long event will require students to work together to solve clues in what amounts to a high-tech scavenger hunt – a fun foray into the very serious business of coding and ciphering critical information in an age of rapidly developing cyber-threats.

Anid, dean of NYIT’s School of Engineering and Computing Sciences, said it was her university’s responsibility to take the lead on such cybersecurity efforts, as “the only nationally recognized Center of Excellence for cyber-defense education on Long Island.”

“It is our duty to push our students to join the cyber workforce,” Anid told Innovate LI. “And not just at the collegiate level, but also at the high school level.”

While future events at NYIT will indeed involve regional high-schoolers – including a summer camp “hacking workshop,” Anid noted – most events in the Cybersecurity Challenge Series, including the May 5 kickoff contest, are reserved for university students.

Nada Anid: Duty-bound.

Student teams will be required to break codes using various cryptographic methods, techniques and tools, ranging from fairly mundane Caesar ciphers (wherein each letter in a code is replaced by a letter a fixed number of positions down the alphabet) to slightly more advanced transition ciphers (a numerical data-encryption scheme) to more obscure steganography techniques, which involve the concealing of messages, images or data in other messages, images or data.

Deciphering one clue will lead teams to the next. Each team’s efforts will be monitored by judges including employees of Northrup Grumman’s Maryland-based cybersecurity division and a representative of Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas.

The ETIC has also reached out to the offices of U.S. Reps. Peter King (R-NY 2) and Kathleen Rice (D-NY 4). Rice, who succeeded retired Democrat Carolyn McCarthy as the Fourth District U.S. representative in 2015, has vowed to continue former Third District Congressman Steve Israel’s push on regional collegiate-level cybersecurity efforts.

While definitely keen on welcoming support from the House of Representatives, Anid stressed that the Cybersecurity Challenge is a completely politics-free effort, as exemplified by the invitation to King’s congressional office.

“[Rice] reached out to us about two months ago, asking how we can push the cybersecurity agenda on Long Island,” Anid noted. “I reminded her that at one point, Congressman Israel invited a congressman from Texas, a Republican, to participate in a cybersecurity event here.

“We are an educational institution and this is a bipartisan effort.”

There are modest prizes at stake in the first leg of the Cybersecurity Challenge – a $500 Amazon gift card for the winning team, $250 cards for two runner-up squads – but the real trophies are the real-world cybersecurity principles and techniques that will be imparted on the students, Anid noted, providing them with hands-on experiences they’ll need to thrive in the cyber workforce.

“It’s very important,” she said. “It’s our job to teach the next generation to counter the coming wave of cyberattacks.”

More information on the May 5 Cybersecurity Challenge event is available here.