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$300K grant offers real-world cybersecurity training

Though cyberattacks seem to be making headlines more than ever, steps are being taken at USF to help cyber defenders fight back. 

A $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation will allow USF students in the cybersecurity master’s program to develop the skills and knowledge needed to prevent high-profile hackings, such as the recent U.S. Central Command breach.

The grant was awarded to USF Information Systems Decision Sciences professor Grandon Gill and his team to research and develop cybersecurity case studies based on the realistic concerns and needs of various clients, which will soon be determined in a series of interviews.

“We are developing case studies by interviewing real-world companies and looking for the problems that lead to major decisions in cybersecurity,” Gill said. “In many cases, this involves methods to making a system more secure or reacting to a breach in a system or choosing between cybersecurity vendors and products.”

For the next 18 months, faculty and student research assistants will be tasked with interviewing companies to develop a dozen or more cases that will test students’ decision-making skills in realistic circumstances. 

This program develops a series of technical and social cases covering a broad range of issues for classroom and online instruction. Gill said these are essentially the types of cases that are integrated into the curriculum at Harvard.

“While this might not sound as exciting as fighting hackers, most of our graduates are going to encounter this type of decision-making in the professional field,” Gill said. 

Following a recent string of cyberattacks on major companies such as Target, Snapchat and, most recently, Sony, the timeliness of the grant is ideal as major entities question whether their information is truly safe.

By the time a cyber catastrophe has taken place, it’s usually too late to address the issue, so Gill’s cases aim to teach students the most practical and common-day measures for everyday problems in cybersecurity.

“These are real-world cases,” Gill said. “Many cases are not incredibly exciting in terms of life-or-death situations or espionage, we’re dealing with routine decision-making utilized in cybersecurity.”

Which doesn’t imply that cybersecurity is boring; rather, the opposite is true. Equipping a system with preventative measures to halt cyberattacks before they dramatically damage a system and dealing with incoming threats by beefing up security promises plenty of challenges.

The $300,000 will help fund USF research overheads, graduate students and Ph.D. students who are currently working to write cases, as well as a handful of workshops in which Gill and staff will train faculty from USF and other institutions on how to use these cases for their own benefit. 

“We want this to be a sustainable activity,” Gill said. “Once we walk away, they’ll be able to incorporate these cases into their own courses and learn how to write their own cases.” 

Gill proposed the grant, which is the first of its kind from the new Florida Center for Cybersecurity (FC2). 

FC2 will contribute to the case study by connecting Gill and his team with organizations and companies to interview regarding cybersecurity.

By late summer 2016, the cases should be completed and compiled into a textbook for global use. Between 100 and 200 students are expected to benefit directly from the grant, but countless others are expected to benefit from the compiled case studies.