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Digital defenders are preparing for war at this Florida training center

A man points to a screen attached to a bank of computer servers. Additional computers on racks stretch into the distance.
Bernard Leonard Wilchusky Jr.
The UWF Center for Cybersecurity is a cutting-edge site that supports full-spectrum cyber operations including detection, incident response, protection, recovery and investigation using hands-on, scenario-based training. Located in the Studer Community Institute in downtown Pensacola, the Center for Cybersecurity's location positions the Center to conduct innovative teaching, research and training for students, professionals and state agency personnel.

As the attention over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine focuses on conventional weapons, there are also concerns over a 21st-century tactic — cyber warfare. The University of West Florida is engaged in that sector.

Cyberwarfare includes denial of service attacks, hacker attacks, and spreading disinformation and propaganda.

“Recent advisories indicate that Russia has launched cyberattacks on Ukrainian organizations and [the] government; and that imposes risks on, of course, individuals and organizations here in the U.S. and across the world,” said Dr. Eman El-Sheikh, director of the Center for Cybersecurity at the University of West Florida.

From where she sits, El-Sheikh says the attempts are targeting areas affecting the most people in given areas, such as electric utilities, water systems, and other organizations serving large populations — including in the United States.

“Some of the advisories have indicated that our critical infrastructure could be at risk, she said. “There has been an indication that Russian actors have tried to target defense contractors for the U.S. to kind of try to get at potential information.”

Keep in mind, says El-Sheikh, that the cyber threats are ongoing; an uptick, perhaps, but the kind of alerts that should send up red flags about threats to be ready for threats from Russia — or elsewhere. In other words, a little due diligence in advance is helpful both at work and at home.

“Make sure that your software and your systems are up-to-date, schedule auto-updates for everything, strong and unique passwords, and that you’re not sharing your passwords,” said El-Sheikh. “Enable multi-factor authentication for your home computers, make sure routers are secure.”

 Dr. Eman El-Sheikh, Director, UWF Cybersecurity Center
Dr. Eman El-Sheikh, Director, UWF Cybersecurity Center

If you’re not sure a website or attachment is secure, El-Sheikh says don’t click on it. If you are hit, don’t panic — stay calm, get some help, and work the problem.

“Other advice: backup systems, backup information data; we’ve had, even during the pandemic, a rise in ransomware attacks,” El-Sheikh said. “The best kind of protection for ransomware is to make sure that everything that you need, you have backed up somewhere so you’re not impacted by a ransomware attack.”

Identifying who’s who among the bad guys in the Ether(net) is a particular challenge. UWF’s Center for Cybersecurity works with the FBI and other federal agencies to monitor threat alerts and their origins — something she calls a very complex process.

“What we’re seeing more of is a collaboration among those agencies and industry partners to share threat intelligence information,” El-Sheikh said. “And also now, international collaboration in order to kind of help share information that could be used to thwart potential attacks.”

The key role played by UWF, among the other cyber guardians, is education, training, and awareness — by running the National Workforce Development Program — training veterans in critical infrastructure security firms.

“There is a need for more skills and more qualified professionals in critical infrastructure, whether that be our energy companies, our energy companies, our utilities, our financial services, our defense contractors,” said El-Sheikh. “And we have programs to help train and get individuals into the cyber-security roles.”

The next class, totaling 38 students, begins the course next week. Those completing it will earn industry certifications and work toward getting into cyber roles.

“Our graduates are being employed by energy companies, by Navy Federal Credit Union, [and] by other energy-defense-financial services and organizations hiring,” she said. “And we welcome those organizations looking to hire as well.”

More information is available at uwf.edu/cybersecurity.
Copyright 2022 WUWF. To see more, visit WUWF.

Dave came to WUWF in September, 2002, after 14 years as News Director at the Alabama Radio Network in Montgomery, Mobile and Birmingham and a total of 27 years in commercial radio. He's also served as Alabama Bureau Chief for United Press International, and a stringer for the Birmingham Post-Herald.
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