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College Students Helping Local Government with Cybersecurity

The Public Infrastructure Security Cyber Education System (PISCES) works with colleges and universities to allow cybersecurity students to monitor real web traffic from government organizations and report threats.

(TNS) — Darrik Teller and his team of security operations center analysts figured something was up when they saw a Russian-based IP address pinging a system a couple hundred times over approximately a minute and a half.

The requests were made to the system of an Eastern Washington municipality that Teller and his team monitored earlier this year. After some more research into the IP address, Teller said the group brought their suspicions to higher authorities as a likely threat.

"What ended up happening was the incident responders agreed with us that it was a little weird seeing a Russian IP address trying to find vulnerabilities in the system," Teller said, "to which they then blacklisted that IP and sent it to other municipalities in the area."

All in a day's work for entry-level security analysts working for a small local government — except Teller and his team were not government employees.

They're Eastern Washington University students.

Their experience was a fruit of a Washington-based nonprofit's effort to provide a level of protection to municipalities and government agencies in need while offering real-life experience to cybersecurity students.

The Public Infrastructure Security Cyber Education System (PISCES) collaborates with participating colleges and universities so cybersecurity students can monitor real web traffic from government organizations for potential attacks and anomalies. After evaluating the threat, students escalate the issues as needed to higher-level cybersecurity authorities with PISCES.

PISCES is partnered with the the Department of Homeland Security and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Members of the board include Dan Wordell, information security officer for the City of Spokane.

City, county, maritime port or any other type of small government organization with less than 150 employees are eligible for free PISCES services. Participating students sign a nondisclosure agreement.

Current participants include public organizations in Spokane Valley, Covington and Port Townsend, according to the Wall Street Journal. Spokane Valley officials did not immediately return a request for comment.

"It's been really productive for the students, and we are doing a much-needed service for the municipalities that we cover, and we cover municipalities across the entire state of Washington," said Mark Neufville, the instructor for Spokane Falls Community College's PISCES coursework.

Michael Hamilton, a co-founder of PISCES, declined to publicly disclose the list of participating public-sector organizations. Hamilton said the staffing eligibility threshold ensures the nonprofit does not compete with private-sector companies.

"It's metadata; we can't read email, we don't see your webpage, we don't see financial transactions or anything like that. We see who you talked to, what time it was, how long the conversation lasted, etc." Hamilton said. "Collecting metadata and then using it as real-time curriculum for students ... we make practitioners that have operational experience."

Eastern, Western and Central Washington universities, SFCC, Green River College and Alabama A&M University are the current program participants. PISCES is in the process of expanding into at least Colorado and Idaho.

"Originally, this was going to be the employee pipeline for my company," said Hamilton, chief information security officer for the Washington-based CI Security. "Now, we're in a fistfight with Boeing and General Electric. (Students) are getting snapped up like crazy."

Students aren't paid; rather, they get class credit and can earn a certificate from PISCES after monitoring for a certain amount of hours, said Stu Steiner, assistant professor of computer science at EWU.

WWU, the first university to start the class, manages the curriculum with input from the other participating schools, said Erik Fretheim, the director of WWU's cybersecurity program.

"We try to make it as easy as possible for the schools to do it, but it is a somewhat demanding class for schools to teach because the instructors have to really know their stuff well since they're dealing with live information," said Freitheim, who sits on the PISCES board. "They can't just hope to wing it and stay a chapter ahead of the students because they can get any type of question at any time."

After WWU, SFCC was among the first institutions to sign on for a PISCES curriculum to complement its degree programs in cybersecurity and information systems and technology, said Lenaya Hogan, SFCC's Bachelor of Applied Science program coordinator. As part of the program, SFCC students have put together reports on potential threats they have raised to higher authorities.

Hogan said the PISCES program offers students a "reality check" with what they might want to do later in life.

"It's kind of like an internship or something like that nature that it gives you that real-life experience to build your confidence," she said.

EWU, meanwhile, ran through the program for the first time this past winter quarter from January through April. With the project, EWU juniors and seniors each worked 10 hours per week in teams, cooperating with other schools to cover shifts throughout the day without overlap.

For the 2022 winter quarter, Steiner said he hopes to ease students into the work with controlled practice runs, as the amount of data from the public-sector organizations can be "pretty overwhelming" at first.

"For my students and for our Eastern students, just that hands-on experience, there's nothing like it in the world," Steiner said.

Teller, who will start at General Motors next month, can attest to that.

Graduating with a bachelor's degree in computer science, Teller said he was told in his job offer that the real-life experience is part of what set him apart from other candidates.

"The programs of those using the PISCES project are definitely something that was good for the students, good for the school and also good for the security of the municipalities that we were supporting," he said. "Being able to have 50-60 students have eyes on this data, to which we're providing monitoring almost 24/7, is very much something that is good for everyone involved in that process."

©2021 The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Wash.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.