How to diversify and strengthen the field of cybersecurity?

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Given the cyber threats to the security of the United States, including recent Russian-sponsored threats to our critical infrastructure, it is essential that more people are trained in cybersecurity. It is especially important that these people are representative of the nation as a whole and reflect the diversity of the country. According to a 2021 report from the Aspen Tech Policy Hub, African Americans make up only 9% of the cybersecurity industry, which is lower than their representation in the overall population. As the report states, “Following the national racial justice calculation in mid-2020 sparked by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other black Americans, it has become clear that current diversity efforts, d Equity and Inclusion (DEI), however well-intentioned, did not address the overwhelming whiteness and masculinity of the cybersecurity realm. The field remains remarkably homogeneous, both among technical practitioners and political thinkers, and there are few model programs or initiatives that have demonstrated real progress in building diverse and inclusive teams.

Recently, the National Security Agency (NSA) partnered with Bowie State University, a historically black university in Bowie, MD, for an intensive 8-week program focused on diversifying the cybersecurity profession and engagement of African-American students in historically black colleges and universities (HBCU). The program culminated when the students presented their research to NSA executives and representatives of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence during a virtual challenge showcase.

Participants in Bowie’s Intensive 8-Week Cyber ​​Security Program were a combination of graduate and undergraduate students looking for an opportunity to develop their skills and resumes. The experience provided valuable training in artificial intelligence as well as opportunities for collaborative teamwork.

One of the professors who worked with the program at Bowie State is Benjamin Harvey, Visiting Research Professor Emeritus. Harvey is a triple HBCU graduate specializing in computer science. He graduated from Mississippi Valley State University (MVSU) in 2008 with a bachelor’s degree in computer science. He also received a Masters and PhD in Computer Science from Bowie State University (BSU) in 2011 and 2015, respectively.

According to Harvey, “The students were extremely dedicated. They built models and technologies that could help support the security of our nation. Each student was presented with a challenge, developed by the NSA Cyber ​​Security Branch in collaboration with Maxar Technologies and the faculty of Bowie State University. According to Harvey, “Each of the student scans will support the NSA’s infusion with innovative techniques for future scans. The NSA will now be able to further incubate the initial prototypes and exploit them to support future, highly visible, critical activities. “

In his role as a mentor, he volunteered 10 hours a week, meeting individually with each student. For students who had no programming experience, Harvey taught them the basics of data science and machine learning. Many students started out with little confidence that they would be able to meet and meet the challenge within the 8 week time frame. As Harvey explained, “I believe that one thing that this program has taught students is that if you put the time, energy, effort into it and have the will and desire to succeed, the sky is the limit. the limit.” By the end of the 8 weeks, the 4 student groups had created a cutting edge prototype which was handed over to the NSA experts in the form of articles and presentations.

While the program aimed to build a pool of cybersecurity talent, according to Harvey, it’s also about mentoring and identifying students’ passions and skills. He said, “I sat down with the students to find out more about what they were passionate about and their skills to match the issues faced according to what each student is interested in and the skills needed to be successful. “

Harvey focused on demonstrating to the NSA the talent and contributions HBCU students as a whole can make to cybersecurity. As he explained, “Students of Minority Support Institutions (MSI) – and HBCUs in particular – are often overlooked and counted despite bringing a lot of talent to the table.”

As a former Bowie State student and having worked for the NSA for over a decade, Harvey said, “I know there is an incredible pool of talent in this HBCU. My goal is to create a talent pool from Bowie State University to the NSA so that other black students who normally don’t have opportunities open to them – due to their stint in smaller MSIs – have this luck thanks to this program. “

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