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Mississippi State is among the nation’s elite institutions that are preparing students for highly technical cyber security jobs, and the university has a new designation from the National Security Agency that will expand these opportunities.

On Wednesday [Sept. 4], the NSA announced that MSU is one of four new schools selected for its National Centers of Academic Excellence in Cyber Operations Program, which was “designed to cultivate more U.S. cyber professionals in an ever-changing global environment,” according to the agency.

Steven LaFountain, an NSA technical leader, said legal and ethical issues in cybersecurity are a required and critical part of the effort.

“In the application process and in all of its work with selected schools, NSA emphasizes the importance of integrity and compliance,” he stated in a release. “Cyber skills are increasingly important in national defense, but it’s even more important to operate as responsible citizens in the use of such skills.”

The certification comes after a rigorous, two-year application process by faculty in the departments of computer science and engineering and electrical and computer engineering.

David A. Dampier, a professor of computer science and engineering at the land-grant institution, led the effort.

“MSU is among a relatively elite group of schools helping the nation meet its need for highly-skilled cyber warriors,” he said.

The Air Force Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon University and Auburn University join MSU as CAE-Cyber Operations designees for the 2013-14 academic year, the NSA said. Designations are for five years, and schools across the country can compete to join each year.

Of note, Mississippi State also holds national CAE designations in information assurance education and in information assurance research. Mississippi State is the only institution of higher education in the state to attain the three designations.

As a CAE for cyber operations, the university may now issue certificates to graduates in the computer science master’s degree program who have completed the necessary cyber operations courses, Dampier explained.

“This certification further enables us to teach skills that are used by federal agencies engaged in cyber war — giving Mississippi State students an added edge when competing for these jobs,” he said.

According to Dampier, students who include the cyber ops option in their coursework will be exposed to a diverse range of cyber security skills and in-depth study.

“Key skills will be the ability to conduct penetration tests of computer networks, as well as reverse engineering software, including viruses, Trojan horses and other forms of malware,” he said.

“These skills are in demand by government agencies, as well as private contractors working on computer security-related projects,” he added.

In addition to Dampier, the MSU team which worked to attain the designation were, from computer science and engineering, Cindy Bethel, Wesley McGrew, Mahalingam Ramkumar, Ed Swan and Byron Williams; and from electrical and computer engineering, Sherif Abdelwahed, Pan Li, Tommy Morris and Robert Reese.

The university’s cyber security capabilities include three dedicated research centers: the Center for Computer Security Research, the National Forensics Training Center and the Critical Infrastructure Protection Center.

Additionally, MSU’s cyber security capacity is enhanced by many faculty holding U.S. government security clearances ranging from secret to top secret. Many students in the program also maintain active clearances.

Since 2001, MSU has been funded by both the National Science Foundation and the NSA to produce security engineers for government service under Cyber Corps scholarship programs, and has produced more than 100 students that are destined for government service.


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