UConn Launches $1 Million Cybersecurity Lab for Students

UConn launched its cybersecurity program with the opening of a $1 million lab with a curriculum that teaches students hacking skills in a controlled environment, so they can use this knowledge to stop real hackers.

by Amanda Blanco, The Hartford Courant / October 17, 2019
Shutterstock/Michael Traitov

(TNS) — UConn officially launched its cybersecurity program on Wednesday, with the opening of a $1 million lab donated by alumni brothers Stephen ’54 and Samuel Altschuler ’50. The curriculum teaches students hacking skills in a controlled environment, so they can use this knowledge to stop real hackers “in the wild.”

“The national academy of engineering identified preventing cyberterrorism as one of the 14 grand challenges of the 21st century,” said UConn President Thomas Katsouleas. “[Hackers] affect everything from Fortune 500 companies to local governments, and yes, research universities.”

UConn HealthUConn Engineering, and Yale have all experienced data breaches in the last decade. Attorney General William Tong announced in July that Equifax will pay Connecticut $5 million following a breach in 2017. In September, a Capital One data breach affected over 100 million people in North America, putting 140,000 social security numbers at risk.

“It is our vision, my brother and I, that this facility...will become a center of excellence for the advancement of cybersecurity knowledge,” said Stephen Altschuler.

The former board of trustees members founded electronics manufacturer Altek in Torrington, Connecticut. His brother Samuel founded Altron in Willmington, Massachusetts. The family also started a scholarship for UConn engineering students in the 1990\u2032s.

What makes the lab and curriculum unique is its entirely practical nature, said Ben Fuller, an assistant professor who teaches in the lab.

“It’s the first time in my career that I go into a room [and] I don’t lecture,” he said.

Students receive a laboratory assignment, similarly to how they would in a physics or chemistry lab, and have two weeks to complete it. They are currently learning how to trick wireless network users and steal their login information using a fake banking website.

“If you don’t have experience in cybersecurity, a lot of what we describe sounds scary," Fuller said. “[But] you have to understand the threats so you can know how to prevent them and be aware of these things."

The lab operates on a separate network than the rest of the school, he said, and the students are not actually committing malicious acts but learning through a monitored system.

Starting this fall, cybersecurity courses will be mandatory for all freshmen studying computer science. The program is also open to upperclassmen and students of other majors as an elective. By next year, Fuller expects 100 students to be enrolled in the courses each semester.

“Everything is connected to the internet,” said Ben Buchmeier, a senior studying computer science and engineering. “You may have a toaster and a fridge that are connected to the internet, and somehow those can be used to steal credentials.”

Buchemeir became interested in cybersecurity during his time at UConn, and he plans to join the field after graduation. The starting salary for a cybersecurity analyst is typically around $90,000. Besides the high pay, Buchemeir said he likes that he can work from almost anywhere in the world, as cybersecurity is a global issue.

“This is a lot more than an undergraduate lab for us, a lot more than a science experiment,” said Kazem Kazerounian, dean of the engineering school. “It is [teaching] the skill sets our engineers need to be successful in this war against the bad guys.”

©2019 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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