PSCC’s cyber defense program aims to tackle growing cyber threats

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) – Technology has made life easier, and more convenient, in many ways. It’s also bought modern threats to our country and new opportunities for criminals to cash in.

Wednesday, we learned the world’s largest meat producer paid $11 million to hackers to prevent future damage to their systems. JBS USA even stopped production for several days as a result of the ransomware attack.

Department of Justice officials announced Monday they collected most of the millions paid in ransom by Colonial Pipeline. That ransomware attack resulted in problems at the pump along the east coast, including in our region.

Experts continue to urge companies and institutions to shore up their defenses. Britgitte Mase, Vice President of Cyber and Technology Solutions with Boston Government Services, LLC, explained recent attacks underscore the importance of understanding your digital assets, where they’re connected, and the risks they pose. This applies to individual households and large corporations.

BGS provides a variety of services for federal agencies and private sector clients, including cybersecurity. Over the course of that work, Mase often finds decades-old technology still in place. While those technologies were built to last, the programs used to hack them are now widely available.

New ransomware is discovered daily and the threat factors change constantly. It threatens critical infrastructure, including our oil and water supply. However, Mase is confident those systems can be secured through appropriate controls, awareness, segmentation, and layered defenses.

“You don’t want the things where you’re running your business systems to be connected to your critical infrastructure,” she said. With the right controls in place, she believes portions of the Colonial Pipeline hack could have even been foreseen.

The increasing virtual threat is why she hopes more people will pursue her line of work. “There’s a lot of careers out there. But, there’s a handful really, that you can say we’re changing the world.” She thinks it’s a field that will grow with the demand for more cyber security. “It’s not something that’s going to go away…it’s going to morph into additional challenges. As long as technology grows, the need to secure it is going to grow.”

Pellissippi State Community College’s Cyber Defense Program aims to help.

Tammie Bolling, Chair of the Department of Computer Information Technology and Professor of Business and Computer Technology, is working to produce more graduates with the skills needed to protect that critical infrastructure. “As we evolve in any type of IT industry, we are going to have to have someone to protect us…the government needs protection, the industries need protection, the public water supply, the public electrical system,” Bolling said.

Students in the program learn how to find cyber threats and ways to prevent future attacks. They’re required to complete 61 credit hours, which include an internship. PSCC teaches students in a Cyber Operations Center, allowing them to experience hacking in a safe environment and simulations.

The lab allows them to garner tactics to protect assets and find the origin of a threat. The facility, Bolling said, is similar to what you would see at the FBI or Department of Homeland Security.

Former student Andy Brown had no problem putting those skills to use. He’s interning with the Department of Homeland Security on a “threat hunting team” while pursuing a graduate degree from Tennessee Tech University. “I mostly do network intrusion monitoring,” he said. “I’m developing some tools to assist analysts with going through that.”

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