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Grappling with Cyber Threats

Through its online master’s program in cybersecurity, the College of Engineering and Computer Science prepares students to thwart the dangers of the digital world.

College of Engineering and Computer Science Group Photo at Syracuse University
College of Engineering and Computer Science students in the online master’s programs gather for their immersion weekend in September 2018. The Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science offers online graduate programs in cybersecurity, computer engineering and computer science, and students in all three programs participate in classes together. The immersion weekend unites them on campus from the virtual world.

In today’s interconnected world, cybersecurity is essential to keeping our e-lives on course. With ever-evolving threats looming, anything operating in the digital realm is vulnerable to cybercrimes, from attacks on national defense systems to identity theft.

For two decades, Clerley Silveira G’20 has been developing payment systems software for the convenience store industry. As a software architect and member of Verifone Systems’ forensic team, he was involved in ensuring that information security standards were met for electronic payment cards. In April, he accepted a position as API (application programming interfaces) initiative coordinator for Conexxus, a nonprofit organization that develops data-exchange standards for the convenience store and retail fueling market. “Security has always been a concern,” says Silveira, who lives in Palm Harbor, Florida.

This spring, following a year and a half of online studies, he earned a master’s degree in cybersecurity through Syracuse University’s College of Engineering and Computer Science (ECS). “The knowledge I have gained will make me a better engineer and help me develop software that is more secure,” he says. “I am especially interested in security when it comes to edge systems where some of the functionality is split between the cloud and multiple locations.”

Two people working together on computer at Syracuse University, College of Engineering and Computer Science. Click to read the story.
Cybersecurity online master’s students Andy Tran and Scarlett Davidson work together on an exercise during an immersion weekend in 2017.

According to a 2017 study by the Center for Cyber Safety and Education, there will be a cybersecurity workforce gap of 1.8 million by 2022. “We have students with a lot of different backgrounds in our program,” says Rick DiRubbo, director of online learning at ECS. “They’re all working full time, and our faculty feel the program is ideally situated for people working in government and the defense industry.”

Molly McGuire G’20 is a software engineer with defense contractor BAE Systems in New Hampshire. She enrolled in the online program in April 2018 and completed her degree this spring. “I dabbled in cybersecurity before I started the degree pathway, but I really saw this issue in business where cybersecurity was more of an afterthought and a layer on the cake of the product that we deliver rather than being implemented step-by-step throughout every design process,” she says. “To make a more robust product, I wanted to learn how to add cybersecurity into every level of our design process.”

McGuire credits the faculty for their guidance in the learning process. “The foundation the faculty laid down for applicable cybersecurity knowledge was wonderful,” she says. “They explained things so clearly and so concisely that I could think of examples that applied to my life at work while we were doing the coursework and going through class.”

Mastering the Technology

In addition to the M.S. in cybersecurity, ECS’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science offers online graduate programs in computer engineering and computer science through a quarterly academic schedule. Students in all three programs participate in classes together, with each student completing a sequence of core requirements for their program of choice. There’s an emphasis on solid math skills and a mastery of algorithms. “All three programs have a certain fundamental core,” says Professor Jae Oh, department chair. “There are overlaps and there’s a good reason for that—we want to prepare students to be ready for future technology as well as the current technology. Our graduates are well educated in the fundamentals, so they can pick up the new technology easily.”

Each course has a weekly live online component supplemented by a recorded asynchronous session. For those who may have STEM degrees, but not computer science or computer engineering backgrounds, the programs offer two preparatory courses focused on programming, algorithm analysis and operating system design. “They build up their skills so when they take the programming courses they’ll have the knowledge they need,” DiRubbo says.

The programs also feature an immersion weekend, bringing students to campus where they meet faculty and classmates, network and participate in a host of academic activities. The programs draw students from across the country and globe, and they benefit not only from faculty expertise, but each other’s experiences. “In the live classes, you may be working on a group project with someone from thousands of miles away,” DiRubbo says. “But you’re learning about them and what they bring to the table.”

Oh says the department wants graduates to have the ability to use their technical skills to create secure system designs, whether for networks, programming languages or other specialized aspects. There is also a focus on cybersecurity assurance. “Assurance tries to not only make sure the system that you created will do what you want it to do, but also doesn’t do things that you didn’t intend for it to do,” he says.

Professor gives video presentation on the Refinement Theorem for Trapping Commands
Professor Shiu-Kai Chin ’75, G’78, G’86 provides instruction in an asynchronous session for the online master’s course in Assurance Foundations. Chin is an expert on trustworthy systems and hardware-based security.

The ECS programs were ranked No. 19 among the Best Online Master’s in Computer Information Technology Programs by U.S. News and World Report in 2020. Many of the department faculty’s well-known cybersecurity researchers and educators created asynchronous video material for the courses. They regularly receive research funding from the National Science Foundation, the National Security Agency and the U.S. Department of Defense. Professor Vir Phoha, for instance, is an expert on machine learning and biometrics. Professor Shiu-Kai Chin ’75, G’78, G’86 is an assurance specialist. Professor Wenliang “Kevin” Du is recognized for his work in teaching computer and internet security, including creating the Security Education (SEED) Labs, a series of open-source exercises designed to help students master cybersecurity issues and an integral part of the cybersecurity program.

Muhammad Q. Shahzad G’19 is well aware of the endless risks posed by cyberattacks and the consequences they can have on victims. “To understand these threats, you need to be well versed in current technologies,” says Shahzad, who graduated from the program in December. “I made great efforts to do this and it pushed me to learn about technologies and their impact on real life. My interest in cybersecurity has ballooned.”

Shahzad lives in Selden, New York, and is a network integration lead/associate system engineer for Custom Computer Specialists, which does contract work with the New York City Department of Education. He works in the field and travels almost daily to New York City, tackling system integration involving new schools, upgrades, computer labs and other technology-related projects, he says. “These projects involve all aspects for the technology infrastructure, including, but not limited to, the routers, switches, firewalls, servers, cameras, and the configuration and installation of all these devices.”

Shahzad found the program’s flexibility to be a good fit for his hectic schedule, saying it gave him the opportunity to learn on the go. He also appreciated the challenging courses, including Assurance Foundations, a new topic for him that required a lot of effort. “Every student will feel this differently, based on their learning curve, time and previous experience,” he says. “The faculty and the indulgence in the subject matter by the synchronous and the asynchronous professors was awesome, and I enjoyed most of the courses. The interaction between the faculty and the students was great.”

Engaging Online

Mehmet Kaya G’10, G’14 joined the department in 2017 as the first full-time online faculty member. An assistant professor, he earned both a master’s degree in computer science and a doctorate in computer engineering from the University and well understands the online program’s value. Kaya is a native of Turkey and made many personal sacrifices to study in the United States, including being away from his family. He appreciates how the program offers a convenient way for students, including those from abroad, to pursue graduate studies. “It’s really fun to teach online and be part of this,” he says. “Having a lot of diverse students joining us from different parts of the country, or even from overseas, without having to sacrifice or leave their current jobs or families, is great. It’s very important to be able to provide this education to those people.”

Kaya has a dual background in education and computer science, specializing in software engineering—code refactoring or reverse engineering, as he calls it. He regularly teaches four courses—Computer Security; Structured Programming and Formal Methods; Mobile Application Programming; and Software Modeling and Analysis—and says the program’s structure gives him the opportunity to get to know students and understand their learning characteristics and, likewise, they get to know him. “The more you teach the students and interact with them, the better you get to know them, and they become familiar with your teaching style and how you organize your sessions,” he says. “Everything becomes more natural and communication becomes a lot easier and more informal and personal. That way you can help them better.”

Seeing all the technology that’s available and being able to meet students one-on-one and helping them with their projects remotely has really showed that online teaching can be very effective in engineering education.

—Mehmet Kaya

Kaya emphasizes the interaction among students and cites the program’s leading-edge technology provided by 2U Inc., which partners with the program. Virtual breakout rooms, for instance, enhance collaboration when students gather for group discussions and projects. “Our technology makes a lot of things easier in an online program,” he says. “Almost whatever you need in a residential or normal classroom is available in a virtual setting, if not even more. Seeing all the technology that’s available and being able to meet students one-on-one and helping them with their projects remotely has really showed that online teaching can be very effective in engineering education.”

The Right Time, the Right Fit

Bharath Karumudi G’20 lives in the Detroit area and has worked for nearly a decade for Tata Consultancy Services, supporting technology services for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, a client of the global software company. As a technical architect, he does system design and decided to expand his knowledge of the computer science industry by studying something that was new and interesting to him. This led him to enroll in fall 2018 in the cybersecurity program, which he completed this spring for a master’s degree. “I’m doing my same job, but I improved how I’m doing my work,” says Karumudi, the fourth member of his family to earn a graduate degree from Syracuse. “Now I can think more from the security perspective and design more sophisticated and secure systems.”

One benefit of that perspective, Karumudi says, is he can now talk with different groups in the organization and understand their issues. “I can deep dive into the computer systems, like networking and security,” he says. “I can speak in their language and, at the end of the day, I’m improving the systems and their efficiency.”

Karumudi liked the opportunity to polish his fundamental skills and participate in hands-on learning, such as the SEED Lab exercises of the computer and internet security classes. His “all-time favorite” class was cryptography. “I knew the implementation part of cryptography, but not the math and algorithms behind it,” he says. “Now I know how the details behind the scenes work.” Karumudi also called on his automobile industry background to contribute to a research paper on biometric authentication for automobiles. And based on a machine learning class, he co-wrote a research paper on detecting and identifying malware through patterns of behavior. “The program was well structured, and I really enjoyed the classes,” he says. “Every class really helped me in some way to do my real-world work.”

Building on Knowledge

Erik D. Jones is the CEO of Jacobian Engineering, an information security company based in Oakland, California, that he founded with his husband, Brian Jones, in 2005. Jones regularly deals with issues that swirl around defense protection, managing IT services and compliance, including safeguarding electronic personal health information required under HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act). “I see myself being able to contribute longer term to the cyberworld, focusing on regulatory compliance and governance and where they intersect with the technical controls and technical elements,” says Jones, who spent the early part of his career in national defense and security, including work at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

I feel that I have a better foundation to understand what it would take to either develop products or develop services around machine learning in the security field.

—Erik D. Jones

Considering his firsthand knowledge, Jones has wanted to add a master’s degree in cybersecurity to his list of experiences for some time. He began his studies in the program in January and is also working toward a law degree online from Purdue University. With an eye to the future, he believes proper governance and compliance are crucial to cybersecurity and wants to deftly navigate at that intersection of law and technology. “I’ve seen a gap between the people who do compliance and the people who implement technical controls,” he says. “And I think the problem is the people who are pure compliance don’t understand the technical elements, and the people who are pure technical don’t understand compliance.”

He points to classes in machine learning and biometrics as especially helpful to him. “I’ve always felt that machine learning is an important evolution in the security field,” he says. “Both of those classes have contributed to my understanding of machine learning. I feel that I have a better foundation to understand what it would take to either develop products or develop services around machine learning in the security field.”

Class work aside, Jones says registering, advisor outreach and learning about courses of interest have been a “terrific experience,” as well as the one-on-one personal approach of faculty and staff. “Being 3,000 miles away, I felt included in the Syracuse community and I appreciated that,” he says.

That, of course, is one of the program’s objectives—to welcome students from distant places and make them feel at home as they work their way through the virtual program, come to know faculty and network with classmates. At the fall 2018 immersion weekend, Muhammad Shahzad enjoyed conversations with faculty, staff and classmates, the activities, and taking a tour of the campus. “It was as awesome experience and a great memory to cherish,” he says, crediting the program with preparing him to look at the big picture and his professional goals. “The program has enhanced my vision and possibilities to further my career. I have learned a great deal of new things, but the learning is far from over and I have kept pursuing my hunger for learning.”

Jay Cox

This story was first published on July 16, 2020 and last updated on .

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