MANHATTAN, Kan. -- Millions of people depend on the Internet every day and cyber criminals are counting on that, according to a Kansas State University cybersecurity expert.
"Hackers are performing cyber espionage by gathering information on companies, seeking out national secrets or starting cyber warfare by disabling critical infrastructure," said Xinming "Simon" Ou, associate professor of computing and information sciences.
To help counter the threat, the National Science Foundation has awarded $2.3 million to Kansas State University's department of computing and information sciences to provide scholarships to qualified students interested in becoming cybersecurity and information assurance professionals. A team of computing and information sciences faculty, including Ou, Gurdip Singh, Eugene Vasserman, John Hatcliff and Scott DeLoach, lead the scholarship program.
According to Ou, many systems society uses every day -- such as smartphones, online companies, media communications, transportation, electricity and hospital systems -- are highly dependent on a very fragile cyber infrastructure that, if hacked into, could be disastrous and shake people's sense of security like a cyber version of Pearl Harbor or 9/11.
"The nation is in dire need of people who are capable of handling the cybersecurity challenges we face," Ou said. "We are lagging behind in the number of experts we have versus the threats we see."
About 6 million attempts are made each day to hack into the U.S. Department of Defense's computers, Ou said. While safeguarding national secrets is a priority, experts also realize that disrupting physical infrastructure is a real possibility.
"It has been shown that by hacking into the computer systems controlling a power generator's turbine, it can set the turbine into high speed until self-destruction," Ou said. "And our power grid in the U.S. is pretty much accessible from anywhere in the world thanks to the Internet."
A newly developed course by the computing and information sciences department, Cyber Defense Basics, uses a contained off-the-grid cybersecurity lab for mock exercises. The lab allows instructors to test students' abilities to defend against cyber attacks without infecting systems outside the lab. It teaches students the basics of cyber defense and how to counterattack.
"The public may not be very aware of how vulnerable we are these days, but the government is," said Gurdip Singh, head of the department of computing and information sciences at Kansas State University. "There have been successful incidents where attackers from another part of the world were able to penetrate U.S. financial and government computer systems. That's why training the next generation to counter these attacks is so important. This scholarship program will be a wonderful opportunity for students interested in the field."
Scholarship applicants must be U.S. citizens and will be subjected to background checks. The scholarship package includes a $20,000-$30,000 stipend plus tuition and fees, as well as money for materials and professional development such as attending cybersecurity conferences and trainings. Scholarship recipients are obligated to serve a government agency in a cybersecurity and information assurance position for the equivalent number of years they received the scholarship.
"Cybersecurity is not a pure technical problem; it needs the whole society's attention and effort to address," Ou said.
The first scholarships will be awarded sometime in 2013. For more information, contact Ou at 785-532-6350 or firstname.lastname@example.org.