FOR DECADES, THE SUNY PLATTSBURGH School of Business and Economics (SBE) philosophy has been that learning should be a hands-on experience, especially when it comes to helping future entrepreneurs navigate the messy world of business. One of the most forward-thinking examples of this philosophy can be found in the Business School’s Center for Cybersecurity and Technology (CCT). The CCT, which has been nicknamed the Hackerspace, has become a collaborative space for both college and high school students to immerse themselves in cyberspace.
Located in AuSable Hall, the CCT is covered wall to wall in black screens. Computers line the classroom in a horseshoe shape, and crypto currency miners sit in comfortable rows as their wires navigate their way to the wall. Dark blue posters of successful alum are proudly taped up as a reminder of how essential this hands-on experience is to a successful career.
The CCT is a place for students to learn how to ethically hack through firewalls, learning intrusion detection systems (IDS), network monitoring and much more. The Center proudly encourages creativity and curiosity. It is a place for students to apply classroom theories to real life situations in ways that interest them. Students pick their own projects and formulate their own endeavors individually or in small groups.
A Byte of History
The CCT’s coordinator, Cristian Balan, who was fundamental in establishing the Center, talked to SB about cybersecurity in the framework of the business world. “Cybersecurity is not a computer science problem, but a business problem with lots of dollar signs attached to it,” he said.
The idea for the “Hackerspace” started roughly four years ago when Devi Momot, president of Twinstate Technologies and Keith Tyo of SUNY Plattsburgh came up with the idea of a space for students to tinker with technology. Tyo originally went to the Computer Science department with the idea, but nothing came of it. It was not until Tyo presented the idea to an enthusiastic Balan that it began to take shape. With little money available to build the Center, Balan did what he had done previously at Champlain College in Burlington. He drove around the county in his pickup truck collecting donated pieces of equipment, including some from the county’s Emergency Services Department. The bits and pieces of old computers and wiring clattering around in the back of his truck marked the beginning of a future technological haven for students. The Center, which had a modest start in early 2017, is now a buzzing classroom full of energy and activities.
Getting a C++ Education
A multitude of students have circulated through the Center during the past four years. Each semester new projects and goals emerge based on the current makeup of the students. The CCT’s goal has always been student focused. Balan explained, “It’s really built by the students. I am there for advice, for giving ideas and helping troubleshoot, but ultimately the students should be the ones building things”.
The first concept that is instilled in the students at the Center is the importance of social responsibility. The ethics involved in this line of work are crucial. When working in cybersecurity, individuals have access to networks that contain sensitive information. They have people’s data literally at their fingertips. Before teaching students how to do this type of work, it is essential for them to understand the weight of this responsibility. Balan said, “It is up to educators to ensure this new power is applied in a socially responsible and ethical manner.”
Once this is understood, students can begin their journey to becoming an ethical hacker, a term the center defines as “a person who ‘hacks’ a computer network in order to test or evaluate its security, rather than with malicious or criminal intent.” This is usually done with prior permission from the network owner. Students begin by learning computer networking, a prerequisite to cybersecurity. The Center reconfigures the three computer networks accessible to the students every semester, so they understand the pieces and parts and how they work together. After that is understood, they learn about security monitoring and they build services.
Juniors, seniors and team leads can take on advanced projects like installing a new tool and figuring out how it works. They can then use their knowledge to teach younger students. The leads also identify open-source projects that everyone is interested in.
The Center’s latest project is monitoring the networks of certain non-profit organizations who cannot afford the services of a cybersecurity professional. Students can scrutinize their networks for anomalies right from the CCT. This type of hands-on learning is a truly unique experience and crucial to understanding the endless possibilities of the cybersecurity world. It slowly prepares each student by building their knowledge and helping the community.
Networking in the Community
The CCT has been essential in raising cybersecurity awareness in the North Country. One of the major events the Center hosts is its annual North Country Cybersecurity Conference (NCCSC) which draws nearly 200 people from both business and cybersecurity communities, once again solidifying the important, deep connection between the two worlds. The NCCSC’s main goal is “to educate local business and government organizations on the need and implementation of cybersecurity measures and technical safeguards to protect user data and business intelligence.” Attendees come from both New York and Vermont companies. The Center also works with middle and high school students to help them develop a passion for technology. High school students are invited to join the Center if they are up for a challenge.
The Center is eager to have women become more involved in cybersecurity. The CCT is very purposeful about recruiting and promoting women in cybersecurity. Its goal is to have fifty percent of the interns at the Center be women. To encourage more females to apply, and keep them engaged, the Center has opened a campus chapter of GirlsWhoCode and conducts Women in Tech sessions. Successful women are invited to participate as mentors, to be examples to the interns.
Balan believes one of the reasons there are fewer women in the field is due to a lack of early technology education. “The core problem is early age education for women. We do not promote women in math, science and technology at an early age. Teachers must be very deliberate about encouraging women in these fields. We have to overcome the social stigma that has been around for hundreds of years.” This understanding has led the Center to create opportunities for women to take on leadership roles and build their confidence.
Compiling a Future
The work of the CCT has clearly left an impact on the North Country. Its work to help raise cybersecurity awareness for businesses, give individuals practical guidance through events and public outreach, and work to attract technology companies to the area has been beneficial across the board. The Center has propelled students into a multitude of successful careers and a commitment to help others around them. Graduates take with them the importance of their work, and the weight of social responsibility they bear.
Center for Cybersecurity & Technology
211 AuSable Hall
Plattsburgh, NY 12901