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PSU Prepares the Northwest to Combat Cyber Threats

PSU Guest Blog Post

Ransom attacks and other cybersecurity threats put companies, nonprofits and governments at risk of losing large amounts of money and data. Cyber attacks can also shut down or tamper with vital infrastructure from hospitals and public transportation to pipelines and electrical grids—putting livelihoods and even lives in danger.

Portland State has established a leadership position to help the Northwest combat these growing cybersecurity threats. In 2020, PSU was designated as Oregon’s first and only National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Research by the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Department of Homeland Security. This year, the NSA awarded PSU a new two-year, $2 million grant to establish a consortium of public, private and academic partners that will address cybersecurity issues related to smart grid infrastructure in the Pacific Northwest, Hawaii and Colorado. And in January 2022, PSU will launch a new cyber resilience certification for professionals.

Portland State’s new Professional Certificate in Building Cyber Resilience will help city and county managers, and leaders in local nonprofits, schools and tribes protect their organizations from cyber attacks and other cybersecurity threats.

“One of the things that we’ve learned is that a lot of organizations that are smaller—local governments, tribes, nonprofit organizations, even school districts—don’t really have the capacity to run a full cybersecurity program,” says Margaret Banyan, senior fellow at PSU’s Center for Public Service and a course coach for the certificate program. “At the same time, increasingly, those smaller organizations are subjects of ransom attacks.”

These smaller organizations are considered the “soft underbelly of cybersecurity.” They are frequently targeted for cyber attacks due to their lack of defenses and ties to larger organizations.

The goal of the 12-week certificate program is to train local organizations to build up their resilience to cyber attacks and to empower leaders to make decisions that will help defend their organization’s most important data.

“It’s not really a matter of if someone’s going to be subjected to a cyber attack, it’s really when,” says Banyan. “Instead of trying to keep everything out, which is very difficult and really costly, let’s understand what the most important data is that we have and ensure that when we’re attacked, we have protection of that data and that we have the policies, the systems and the people in place to be resilient.”

The course will be facilitated by Banyan, an expert on strategic planning and policy, and Ronald Buchanan, the Chief Information Security Officer for the St. Charles Health System in Bend. Classes will also feature chief information security officers from other local organizations as guest speakers.

The certificate does not require any computer science or other technical expertise. Participants will work through various components of risk assessment and will learn the legal and regulatory aspects of cybersecurity, including relevant federal and state policy.

Participants will also learn about the importance of internal communication for cyber resilience. “I know that organizations can be silos sometimes, and people are the best defense,” says Banyan. “Having a really good clear strategy that department managers can use is a huge asset.”

Banyan notes that it is essential for managers to make sure that all employees are on the same page when it comes to cybersecurity. “One person clicks on a PDF in an organization, and it’s all over,” she says. “That’s what happened in one of our local counties, and they ended up paying $500,000.”

The program is also designed to facilitate collaboration between certificate cohort members so that participants can continue to share information and support long after their certificates are in hand. This sort of collaboration is vital, says Banyan, since cyber threats are continually evolving.

The certificate also ties into larger efforts in the state, led in part by PSU, to build cybersecurity collaborations between local governments, utilities and nonprofits. “That collaborative effort, that’s going to be what makes the difference,” Banyan says. “A lot of the foreign actors, they’re collaborating, they’re working together. The fact that we don’t necessarily do that is a real weakness.”

While this new certificate is designed for working professionals, PSU also has academic programs and research opportunities that help train students to meet the needs of the rapidly expanding field of cybersecurity.

“Last time I checked, there were 1.3 million available jobs in cybersecurity covering both the private and public sector,” says Birol Yeşilada, director of PSU’s Mark O. Hatfield School of Government. “And within two years, we’re going to be close to 3 million jobs.”

Right now, there are not enough people trained to take these jobs. PSU is trying to change that.

To help prepare students for technical jobs in cybersecurity, PSU’s offers a Cybersecurity Graduate Certificate for master’s students in computer science.

For undergraduate students, PSU’s designation as a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Research provides unique opportunities such as cybersecurity scholarships through the Department of Defense.

The NSA smart grid grant provides funding for internships for PSU graduate students who will work with experts in the private and public sectors to assess cybersecurity vulnerabilities and workforce shortages across the Northwest.

If the two-year grant is successful in its goals of assessing and presenting the regional needs for beefing up cybersecurity and forming a coalition of community, public, private and academic institutions to address these needs, the NSA will award PSU an additional $1 million to implement the plan. This funding will provide additional opportunities for students to get state-of-the-art training in cybersecurity.

Yeşilada says there are also plans under way for additional academic programs and job training opportunities in cybersecurity at PSU.

For Yeşilada, PSU’s community partnerships and location in the heart of Portland make it the ideal regional hub for cybersecurity job training—whether it be for traditional students, career changers or working professionals.

“I think this is an amazing opportunity,” says Yeşilada. “PSU has an advantage over other universities and colleges around the country because we emphasize community engagement, more than anybody else I know.”

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