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Rebels Will Be Wearing the White Hat

New cybersecurity minor paving the way for a new bachelor's in the field — making UNLV one of just a few universities in the nation to offer such a program.

Business & Community  |  May 16, 2017  |  By Jason Scavone

Computer science professor Yoohwan Kim is working to develop a bachelor’s program in cybersecurity. (R. Marsh Starks / UNLV Creative Services)

WannaCry ransomware. The email hacks of the Democratic National Committee leaders. Yet another retail giant’s security vulnerability making headlines. If getting a new debit card in the mail every few months should teach you anything, it’s that the threats posed by cybersecurity lapses are legit, and far too common.

With growing demand for cybersecurity professionals — from the biggest corporations in the world to small businesses plagued by ransomware — UNLV is becoming one of the few universities in the country to offer a bachelor of science in cybersecurity.

UNLV is working to offer a minor in cybersecurity soon followed by a full bachelor’s program in about two years. Computer science professor Yoohwan Kim is spearheading efforts to develop the major.

“All these companies are coming (to us) and they're willing to provide all the support because they need cybersecurity people,” Kim said. “Right now there's a big need, but there's nobody to work for them.”

Computer science senior Kevin Roh already has found the fast growing field can pay quick dividends for the security-conscious.

Roh was looking to make a little extra cash when he signed up to drive for Uber. But as he was registering on its website, he found a vulnerability that revealed driver’s license numbers, Social Security numbers, and more for nearly 900 drivers. He reported it to Uber’s security team, and they rewarded him with a “bug bounty.”

Bug hunting is a lot more fun than shuttling tourists to Circus Circus. Roh was hooked, and began bug-hunting for several other companies, discovering along the way that he had found his career path.

“All these products we're using every single day?” Roh said. “I found a vulnerability, but I don't want a bad hacker to find the same vulnerability which discloses credit card information or personal information. So I go out there, find them and report it. If I do, I'm making the internet a safer place for everybody else.”

Both the minor and major will be interdisciplinary undertakings between the College of Engineering and the schools of Public Policy, Business, and Law. “We want a comprehensive program,” Kim said. “Traditional cybersecurity was more computer oriented. We'll add the law school stuff and the management stuff, policy regulation risk analysis. We need them. Without support, this is not going to work.”

In February, the College of Engineering formed a task force to assess areas of need that would make future cybersecurity professionals valuable to local businesses. The task force included representatives from the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, NV Energy, Las Vegas Sands Corporation, Southwest Gas, Switch and the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration among others.

Community involvement in shaping UNLV’s program has been crucial, Kim said, and he’s working with various companies to line up internship opportunities, guest speakers, and perhaps part-time instructors. Companies also are stepping up to provide funding to students. Sands has contributed $6,000 to future efforts for students seeking crucial certifications that are necessary to get jobs in cybersecurity.

Certifications are a big part of the plan for the program, and this year, students can access a Computer Science Advisory Board scholarship that awards $250 toward the Certified Ethical Hacker certificate, a test that costs $700 to take.

“UNLV became the test center, so we can give students the test on site,” Kim said. “Eventually, through the B.S. program, students will acquire several certifications by the time they graduate. So with an internship and certifications, they will be a hot commodity.”

Right now, the College of Southern Nevada offers an associate’s in cybersecurity. The clever hack hidden inside that, though, is that the course requirements parallel those UNLV is developing for its freshmen and sopohomore cybersecurity students. So, the associate’s students at CSN will be right on track to slide into the UNLV's bachelor’s program as soon as it’s put into place—and, as a sister institution, all CSN associate’s graduates are guaranteed acceptance into UNLV’s program.

UNLV will also pick up an assist from private IT and cybersecurity training institute The Learning Center, to help teach five to 10 courses in the curriculum, with a focus on the kinds of certifications that make graduates more attractive to potential employers.

Because cybersecurity is such a technology-driven field, staying on top of current trends is a must. Kim waves a hand at a stack of books in his office, lamenting that the two-year old texts are already out of date. As an academic discipline, the rapidly evolving nature of the field poses the biggest challenge.

“Every year I have to look up new websites, new malware. Even so, it will be out of date when they get out,” Kim said. But, while the specific threats are always changing, “we teach the fundamentals. The fundamental technologies are still the same. The payload, the shell code. Just a tiny bit has changed, but the framework is just the same.”

The fundamentals might be the same, but the degree won’t be.