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UMass Lowell Designated a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense Research

NSA, Homeland Security Recognize University’s Efforts in Protecting the Nation’s Economy and Secrets

Cyber criminal at work
Nearly one in five Americans has been the victim of a cybercrime, and the economic impact of these cyber attacks is costing the average U.S. company more than $15.4 million a year, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

The U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) and Department of Homeland Security have recently designated UMass Lowell a “National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense Research,” or CAE-R, in recognition of the university’s intensive cyber-security research and academic programs.

“We are thrilled and truly honored that the school has been recognized with this prestigious title,” says computer science Assoc. Prof. Xinwen Fu, co-director of the university’s seed center called Internet Security and Forensics Education and Research (iSAFER). “UMass Lowell is one of only four universities in the Commonwealth that carry the designation, the others being Boston University, Northeastern University and Worcester Polytechnic Institute.”

According to Lynn Hathaway, national program manager for CAE-R at the NSA, UMass Lowell was selected because of its “ability to meet the increasing demands of the program [which] will serve the nation well in contributing to the protection of the National Information Infrastructure.”

In her letter announcing the CAE-R designation, Hathaway noted the critical shortage of professionals with cyber-security skills, and highlighted the importance of higher education as a solution to defending America’s cyberspace. “Education is the key to promoting these ideals,” she wrote.

Fu says for more than a decade, UMass Lowell’s cyber-security education and research programs have helped meet the fast-growing demand for highly trained cyber-security workforce in order to secure the nation’s critical infrastructure and classified data, which face skyrocketing cyber attacks like malware and phishing.

“The designation will help UMass Lowell attract more students who want to pursue such a career. It also provides federal funding opportunities that are open only to CAE institutions,” he says.

A Growing Worldwide Threat

Cyber threats will continue to rise as the number of internet-connected devices grows exponentially. In 2015 alone, more than a billion personal information and medical records were stolen or lost to cyber thieves, according to the latest Internet Security Threat Report by Symantec Corp., maker of the Norton AntiVirus software. And “ransomware” attacks, wherein cyber criminals ensnare personal computers, smartphones and other network-connected devices and hold their data hostage for a profit, increased 35 percent last year.

UMass Lowell cyber designation award
Assoc. Prof. Xinwen Fu and Prof. Jie Wang, second and third from right, respectively, receive the CAE-R designation certificate from Suzanne Spaulding (Department of Homeland Security) and Leonard Reinsfelder (National Cryptologic School) in June in Hunstville, Ala.

These are just the latest examples of the ongoing worldwide challenge in battling cybercrime. In response, university researchers at iSAFER, in collaboration with various academic, industry and federal agencies and national labs, have been actively conducting cyber-defense research, creating security awareness and developing advanced cyber-defense tools and technologies.

For example, Fu and his students demonstrated how Google Glass and other video-recording devices can be used to track and steal the passwords of unsuspecting users of smartphones, tablets and ATMs. Their work was featured in CNN, Wired, Huffington Post, Forbes and other major news and technology publications.

Other research projects being undertaken at iSAFER include:

  • Digital forensics, network and mobile security and privacy by Fu and Assoc. Profs. Benyuan Liu and Guanling Chen (both of computer science).
  • Cryptography by Assoc. Prof. John McCarthy and Prof. Jie Wang (both of computer science). Wang is the department chair and director of iSAFER.
  • Secure and reliable networking by Assoc. Prof. Chunxiao Chigan (electrical and computer engineering).
  • Data privacy by Prof. Xiaobai Li (Manning School of Business) and Asst. Prof. Tingjian Ge (computer science).
  • Hardware security by Assoc. Prof. Yan Luo (electrical and computer engineering), with Fu and Assoc. Prof. Yu Cao (computer science).
  • Sensor networks by Liu and Wang.

In addition, the Department of Computer Science, the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the School of Criminology and Justice Studies are offering a variety of cyber defense-related undergraduate and graduate programs. The Division of Online and Continuing Education is also offering a graduate certificate program with Hanscom Air Force Base. 

“Our Ph.D. candidates are currently working on research projects ranging from studying the security and privacy of drones and Big Data to detecting malware in mobile devices,” notes Fu. “Our faculty and students have published more than 60 papers on cyber defense in peer-reviewed journals and proceedings in the last five years, and have given talks and presentations at premier cyber-security conferences across the country. Our work is being supported by the National Science Foundation, DARPA, the Army Research Lab and many others.”

UMass Lowell’s CAE-R designation is effective through academic year 2021.