Webster University

Thomas Johnson

Photo by Inocencio Boc

Whether you’re using your work computer at a large corporation or just surfing the net on your Smartphone, cybersecurity hazards are lurking in virtually endless corners of technology.

Thomas Johnson, AVP for strategic initiatives at Webster University, is working to combat those cyberthreats. Among multiple programs in development at the university, he is leading the implementation of a new graduate degree program in cyberspace systems security, which the school hopes to begin offering this fall. “Cybersecurity is a serious problem, so there are a lot of job opportunities in this growing field,” Johnson notes.

The program will include courses on viruses, threat detection and the cyberspace infrastructure for the power grid. “We will teach students about viruses that affect the power grid and ways to protect it,” Johnson says. Other classes will deal with the policies and ethics related to cybercrime, the forensics of cyberspace, and more. “They will be learning to solve problems that have existed since the Internet started,” Johnson explains. “The net was built with no security. It is this totally unregulated environment. This makes it easy for people to use; and today the whole country relies upon the ability to communicate and pass information over it. It’s a critical infrastructure that has made our country one of the strongest in world; but at the same time, it is our Achilles’ heel because we can be attacked by people using worms and bugs.”

Trojans, worms and spear phishing are among the most common cyberthreats, Johnson notes. For example, spear phishing preys on a user responding to a link that connects to what looks like a real website, such as a bank page requesting to check password information. In reality, the website is a fake copy and the user can be taken advantage of by the aggressor.

These cyberthreats are extremely costly, especially for corporations—to the tune of about $20 billion—so the security need is great, Johnson says. And it creates a large demand in the job market for students with cyberskills. “We anticipate at least 120,000 vacancies in the corporate and private sectors.” For instance, the U. S. government is estimated to have 20,000 positions for cybersecurity professionals, with the Department of Defense aiming to hire 1,000 in the specialized field. At the same time, Johnson continues, the number of students studying computer science is dropping—from 60,000 in 2004 to 39,000 in 2010. So Webster University hopes to help swing that number in a positive direction with its new program. 

Additional degrees in the works include national security and digital forensics. "These initiatives enable us to focus on systems engineering as an emerging area of study at Webster," Johnson says. “We’re just really excited and grateful for a faculty that is developing programs to help keep our nation’s computers secure.”

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