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UTSA, Feds Discuss Creating Cybersecurity Research Institute

The University of Texas at San Antonio is in talks with the Energy Department to establish a $70 million cybersecurity research institute, its mission to safeguard manufacturers who rely heavily on automation.

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(TNS) — The University of Texas at San Antonio is in talks with the Energy Department to establish a $70 million cybersecurity research institute at the school’s downtown campus, its mission to safeguard manufacturers who rely heavily on automation.

The institute would be the latest breakthrough in UTSA’s effort to make its mark in cybersecurity, one of San Antonio’s fastest growing industries.

Details remain scant on the agreement to develop the Cybersecurity Manufacturing Innovation Institute, which university and government officials say will play an important role in modernizing network security for advanced manufacturers in the U.S.

“UTSA has entered into negotiations with (the Energy Department) and will work toward finalizing the cooperative agreement,” university officials said in a statement. “At that time, more information will become available about the institute, its partnerships and the scope of work.”

The institute’s aim would be to research and address cybersecurity vulnerabilities within manufacturing supply chains and automated technologies. A key focus also would be ensuring manufacturers are secure as they shift to more energy efficient technology.

The institute is slated to be housed in the National Security Collaboration Center on UTSA’s downtown campus.

Construction of the NSCC facility is scheduled to finish in 2021, though it’s unclear if the coronavirus pandemic has slowed work on the project.

The Energy Department selected UTSA to lead the institute because of its “core expertise” in cybersecurty, and the “breadth and depth” of its relationships with industry professionals around the nation, university officials said.

With the help of city leaders, UTSA has sought to leverage the strong military presence in San Antonio — including Security Hill at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland — to develop a specialized, high-wage industry in cybersecurity here.

The NSCC, headed by retired Brig. Gen. Guy Walsh, will act as a hub for cybersecurity educators and professionals.

The NSCC so far has agreed to work with organizations such as Raytheon, the National Security Agency and Air Forces Cyber, the U.S. Air Force component of U.S. cyber command.

The NSA operates a sprawling installation in Northwest San Antonio.

U.S. manufacturers in recent years increasingly have brought advanced technologies, including automation, into their operations.

One of these technologies, smart sensors placed throughout the supply chain, can indicate parts shortages or hiccups in production — but they also can offer entryways for hackers to access the system.

Once inside, hackers can steal or manipulate data to cause the making of faulty products or disrupt the system.

In February 2019, the Energy Department announced its intention to launch a major initiative focused on improving cybersecurity in manufacturing. The push was based on recommendations from the White House in its “Strategy for American Leadership in Advanced Manufacturing” report published in fall 2018.

The White House report found that manufacturing requires unique cybersecurity protections.

While many businesses rely on authentication and passwords to protect cloud-based information, physical manufacturing technology can’t be easily updated with new security features or patches.

“New research efforts are needed to develop and/or update standards and guidelines for implementing emerging technologies for cybersecurity in manufacturing systems,” the report states, “including AI for threat detection and handling, blockchain for security of sensitive manufacturing information, and security of... devices when deployed in smart manufacturing systems.”

The introduction of a large institution dedicated to enhancing cybersecurity in manufacturing could be a boon for the regional manufacturing industry, said Rey Chavez, president of the San Antonio Manufacturers Association.

In addition to helping area manufacturers improve their network security practices, Chavez said the institute could make the region more attractive to outside manufacturing companies and suppliers.

“If they’re able to see that we have this cybersecurity component through UTSA, that could be a (reason) in selecting to relocate to our region, which is all the better for our economic development,” Chavez said.

“We have these capabilities, and if you combine that with our location, our road infrastructure, the weather, our workforce, Port San Antonio, Brooks …, we’re really becoming a super location for manufacturers to think about moving to,” he said.

UTSA also will work with private companies and the Idaho, Oak Ridge and Sandia National Laboratories to establish the institute.

“Advanced manufacturing technologies, including novel industrial control systems, hold promise to improve the energy efficiency and competitiveness of the U.S. manufacturing sector,” said Daniel Simmons, assistant secretary for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, in a statement. “The Cybersecurity Manufacturing Innovation Institute will address a range of cybersecurity challenges to enable the increased adoption of next generation energy-efficient technologies in American manufacturing.”

©2020 the San Antonio Express-News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.