Cyber Project Fosters Internet Security Awareness and Skills

Written by: CEHD Communications Staff
Post date: December 07, 2009

Small businesses face many challenges, yet some small business owners remain unaware of the real threat posed by hackers, who can break into computer networks to obtain sensitive information vital to these businesses, notes a Texas A&M University professor who heads a project focusing on cyber security.

The Virtual Tools for Expanding the Cyber Horizon (VTECH) project works to inform small business leaders about the importance of cyber security and to teach individuals the skills necessary to secure networks.

"There are lots and lots of hackers worldwide who have programs that are bombarding the Internet with viruses and worms," says Lauren Cifuentes, principal investigator for the project and associate professor in Texas A&M's Department of Educational Psychology. "VTECH is a way of protecting small businesses because they can lose everything if someone takes their accounts and records."

A two-year, interdisciplinary project with the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, VTECH is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Now in its second year, VTECH has partnered with 15 community colleges in California, New Mexico, Illinois, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas to provide workshops and online instruction in cyber security.

"The computer science programs at the participating community colleges are adopting our learning environment for training their students to be able to secure the Internet for small businesses," Cifuentes says.

Researchers are using a two-pronged approach to the problem. First, they are holding workshops for individuals in the hometowns of the community colleges to raise awareness of cyber security issues. Second, investigators have created a Web-based learning environment called the Virtual Network Engineering Laboratory (VNEL), where students receive instruction and practice setting up firewalls and other online security measures.

"America's comprehensive strategy for cyber security requires training individuals and small businesses so they are able to secure their own parts of cyberspace, as gaps in the security of one group of cyber participants can be a conduit through which other participants are attacked," Cifuentes says.

Researchers say they expect that these trained students will be able to take their technical skills into the community and use them to protect the networks of employers, thus securing a small part of the Internet from cyber attacks.

About research at Texas A&M University: As one of the world's leading research institutions, Texas A&M is in the vanguard in making significant contributions to the storehouse of knowledge, including that of science and technology. Research conducted at Texas A&M represents an annual investment of more than $582 million, which ranks third nationally for universities without a medical school, and underwrites approximately 3,500 sponsored projects. That research creates new knowledge that provides basic, fundamental and applied contributions resulting in many cases in economic benefits to the state, nation and world.