University of South Florida


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USF joins competitive military network to address key cybersecurity challenges

The U.S. military is enlisting the University of South Florida to help address complex cybersecurity challenges.

USF is among 84 universities and colleges nationwide selected to partner with U.S. Cyber Command (CYBERCOM) through its new Academic Engagement Network. The goal is to enhance efforts in applied cyber research, applied analytics, strategic issues and future workforce development.

The Florida Center for Cybersecurity, also known as Cyber Florida, submitted USF’s application to be part of the CYBERCOM network, and is coordinating the university’s participation. Cyber Florida, which is a statewide organization hosted by USF, works with all 12 Florida State University System institutions.

Ron Sanders

Ron Sanders, Cyber Florida staff director

Ron Sanders, Cyber Florida’s staff director, described the application process as “very rigorous,” noting, “It wasn’t as if anybody could just raise their hand and say they wanted to be part of CYBERCOM’s network.”

Created in 2010, CYBERCOM in its early years was a spinoff of the National Security Agency (NSA).

“The reason it was spun off is because at the end of the day, NSA is an intelligence agency – it collects intelligence,” Sanders said. “Cyber Command is a combatant command. Its current doctrine is to ‘defend forward’.”

He also noted that while the NSA has its own relationships with academic institutions, its research needs are distinct from those of CYBERCOM.

“The Academic Engagement Network focuses on what scholars in the academic community can contribute to Cyber Command in terms of frontline cyber operations,” Sanders said. “It is more narrowly focused on those tactical research questions that can help Cyber Command and the country protect military networks and, frankly, go after bad guys if and when necessary.”

In terms of how USF faculty will be able to share their expertise, Sanders described the evolution of the Academic Engagement Network as “a case of crawl, walk, run, and Cyber Command is in the crawl stage.”

“Initially, I think Cyber Command plans on asking a number of fairly technical cyber security questions that we could share with faculty to see if any of them have insights or solutions to those particular questions,” he said. “As the Academic Engagement Network matures, it will become more of a dialogue where we share things we’re researching with Cyber Command, and these may be areas they haven’t thought about but may have applications to the Command.”

Sanders gives credit to Gen. Paul Nakasone, commander of U.S. Cyber Command and director of the NSA, for recognizing the value of engaging with the academic community.

“There’s a lot more capability in the academic community than either NSA or Cyber Command together can field within their own ranks,” Sanders said.

As the Academic Engagement Network matures, Sanders believes there will be opportunities for students to become involved through grants awarded by Cyber Command or other agencies.

“At some point, grants will follow, research will follow, research assistants, graduate assistants, internships will follow,” he said. “The net result will be more information and insight flowing back to Cyber Command on various issues.”

Sanders also said his office is talking with Cyber Command about naming Cyber Florida as an affiliate member of the Academic Engagement Network.

“We told Cyber Command that we could reach the other State University System institutions, we’re engaged with their scholars and their colleges,” he said. “As an affiliate member, they would treat us not only as a source of cybersecurity insights in our own right, but also as a conduit to other scholars who may not be part of the Academic Engagement Network but who have something to contribute to Cyber Command.”

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