The state of US cybersecurity

ASU experts on Obama's defense against cyberattacks

February 9, 2016

President Obama signed two executive orders today to fight data breaches, and to identity theft and other cyberattacks that steal citizens’ personal information.

Here ASU experts Gail-Joon Ahn and Jamie Winterton analyze the state of U.S. cybersecurity. Ahn is a professor in the School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering and the director of the Center for Cybersecurity and Digital Forensics. Winterton is the director of Strategy for the Global Security Initiative.  ASU students are trained in the Human Services Engineering Lab (seen above) on the Polytechnic campus. The lab is part of the Cognitive Engineering Research on Team Tasks lab, which handles a variety of programs including cybersecurity systems, unmanned aerial systems, airport incident command, emergency medicine and more. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now Download Full Image

Question: This sounds like creating two bureaucratic entities, a commission and a council. Does it really accomplish anything?

Winterton: I’m actually optimistic about both of these structures. The Commission on National Cybersecurity will bring together a diverse group — leaders from business, technology, national security, and law enforcement — to work through online security issues in the public and private spheres. Cybersecurity is an interdisciplinary problem at heart, and so that's how it must be approached. Hopefully the new Commission will encourage government and industry to collaborate in a more functional way. Government and industry haven’t had a very good relationship to this point, primarily due to their disagreements over encryption, but I hope that the Commission will work proactively and help the various parties work together.

The Federal Privacy Council is sorely needed. With the amount of deeply personal information that the government holds, and the high-level exposures of that information (OPM, and most recently FBI and DHS), it’s time to get organized and implement cybersecurity “best practices” across the board.  

Q: The orders create a federal Chief Information Security Officer, a role that private sector organizations have long had in place.  Is the government playing catch up?

Ahn: In this case — absolutely. It’s critical to have someone in a position who can establish the vision and guide the overall government information security strategy! It's surprising that we haven't had someone in this role until now. Given the massive infrastructure overhaul outlined in the President's plan, this person has a big job ahead of them — but also a great opportunity to make a difference. 

Q: What benefit will consumers likely see, or is it a benefit they won’t see, such as fewer hacks?

Winterton: There have been so many public hacks in the last few years — all of which damage confidence in information security. I do think that optimally, this action could result in fewer breaches, but it also could have the potential to restore faith in the government's ability to protect personal information. That will take some time, though. One immediate action I would like to see is an actionable set of standards across all government agencies that includes the basics of information security — such as encryption, two-factor authentication, and isolating networks that contain personal information. Those are techniques that OPM didn't employ, which is why their breach was so shocking. These standards can then be extended as an example for industry to follow. Many companies follow cybersecurity practices that are much more robust than the government’s — but some don't. And shouldn't the government lead by example, given the depth of personal data that they hold? 

Q: We routinely hear news reports of major retailers suffering cybersecurity breaches of thousands of customers’ information, and we don’t see consumer outrage. Have consumers grown accustomed to this and just aren’t very concerned?

Ahn: As cybersecurity breaches increase, I believe more consumer groups will address their concerns. However, revealing incidents will significantly influence their business including revenue and reputation. Each enterprise is reluctant to share and broadcast all the details of their threat factor and incidents in depth with the public and consumers. Instead, they often emphasize how they remedied  incidents.  Due to such a lack of information, consumers are not aware of what kind of consequences they will eventually face in their daily digital activities. We need a more rigorous and effective awareness and education program so that businesses who handle our sensitive and critical information will do their due diligence. 

Winterton: I think it’s not that customers aren’t concerned, but more that they just feel powerless. No one wants their information stolen, but many people believe it's inevitable. A person who believes that state-sponsored hackers already have full access to their personal data isn’t incentivized to use good cyber practices, like complex passwords or two-factor authentication. 

Q: If this puts the government in a leadership role on cybersecurity, what is the most important first step they can take?

Winterton: The most important part should be a collaborative platform and protocol that facilitate an information sharing between private and public sectors. Since security should be a proactive arm race, such a protocol or channel is necessary to tackle national security as a team.      

ASU Polytechnic team wins wildlife Quiz Bowl

February 10, 2016

Buoyed by the thrill of participating in the 2013 national wildlife trivia Quiz Bowl, held in conjunction with the annual conference of The Wildlife Society, four ASU Polytechnic natural resource management students returned from that contest with a big idea.

What if a similar Quiz Bowl event could be offered at the regional level? ASU Polytechnic students are regional wildlife Quiz Bowl champs ASU Polytechnic team members (from left) James Ecton, Jacquie Evans, Sky Arnett-Romero and Jessica Latzko accepted the Quiz Bowl "traveling plaque" from Quentin Hays (far right), president of the New Mexico Wildlife Society. The award was presented in front of the 400 professionals and students who gathered for the joint annual meeting of the Arizona – New Mexico Chapters of the American Fisheries Society and The Wildlife Society. Download Full Image

“Held closer to home, it would give more students the chance to compete — and also be a hook to get students engaged with the professional community of researchers and practitioners in wildlife biology and habitat management,” said Heather Bateman, associate professor of applied biological sciences in the College of Letters and Sciences, who took up the cause and chaired the committee that launched the first regional Quiz Bowl competition in 2014.

Three years later, the contest has become quite popular with student chapters, which now have the chance to compete at the Joint Annual Meeting of the Arizona and New Mexico Chapters of the American Fisheries Society and The Wildlife Society.

Last week, when the societies gathered for their 49th joint annual meeting at the Little America Hotel in Flagstaff, Arizona, from Feb. 4-6, the Quiz Bowl competition drew nine teams: one from Northern Arizona University, one from Prescott College, two from New Mexico State University, two from Eastern New Mexico University, two from Bosque School and one from ASU.

Coming full circle, this year’s Quiz Bowl committee was chaired by a member of that first ASU team to compete at nationals, alumnus Brett Montgomery, now with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. 

ASU’s 2016 team of James Ecton, Jacquie Evans, Sky Arnett-Romero, and Jessica Latzko — all applied biological sciences majors from ASU’s natural resource ecology program in the College of Letters and Sciences at the Polytechnic campus — finished strong in every round, earning a place in the finals.

“It was a repeat of last year’s final match-up — we once again faced a team from New Mexico State,” said Latzko, president of the Wildlife and Restoration Student Association at the Polytechnic campus and a veteran of the 2015 ASU team which took home second place.

But this year the Sun Devil team prevailed.

“None of us thought we would do as well as we did; we were just hoping that we didn't get crushed,” said teammate Jacquie Evans, who is president of ASU’s student chapter of the Society for Range Management. “We realized that we may have a chance when we watched the first round and knew almost all of the answers between the four of us. 

“The win was truly a team effort,” Evans continued. “We each had our own areas of expertise: Sky covered the reptile questions; Jessica got the fisheries questions; I knew about birds and plants; and James provided support, random trivia, and a really important quick reflex.” 

The finals drew a standing-room-only audience of more than 150 people — all on tenterhooks — for a contest in which teams not only need to know the right answer but must be quick to buzz in.  

“I was on the edge of my seat, trying to hide my emotions and had my hand over my mouth so I wouldn’t accidently ‘mouth’ any answers,” said ASU’s faculty coach, Stan Cunningham, wildlife biology lecturer on the Science and Mathematics Faculty in the College of Letters and Sciences. “It was tight but it was a good win.”

Cunningham, who also chaired one of the wildlife panels at the meeting, said he received numerous compliments on the caliber of ASU’s students, their overall turnout at the meeting (17 students attended), and the ASU Polytechnic program.

“This type of recognition does a lot for our program and, more importantly, our students’ ability to compete for professional positions,” he said. “We have an excellent natural resources ecology curriculum at the Polytechnic campus. Our students have done well with it, and it's nice to see it gaining visibility.”

In addition to competing, students participated in the full range of conference events, including fisheries and wildlife sessions focused on new research, technology, best practices, and the impact of climate change; poster sessions; as well as a timely plenary session, “Who Will Manage the Future of Our Public Lands,” which brought together elected officials, policymakers, conservation activists, and USDA Forest Service practitioners.

“I was glad so many of our students were able to be at these meetings and attend a plenary devoted to a current political and public policy debate that will directly impact their careers and our wildlife,” said Cummingham. 

Latzko said she greatly appreciates the friendships forged in competition. "Attending the conference the last three years, I've gotten to know some of the other students from different schools that we competed against. I think that’s what makes it fun! It's a healthy competition among friends — one that I think we'll look back on fondly when we're in our professional careers and likely still coming to the conference."


Maureen Roen

Editorial and communication coordinator, College of Integrative Sciences and Arts