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Training new fighters for electronic security

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Computer scientist V.N. Venkatakrishnan

Computer scientist V.N. Venkatakrishnan worked with more than a dozen researchers at UIC, other universities to win the NSF training grant.

Photo: Roberta Dupuis-Devlin

Computer viruses, botnets, trojans, worms, cyber-attacks and identity theft are frightening examples of online mischief and crime — scarier than Hollywood’s classic sci-fi monsters.

Battling this menace requires new ways of thinking. UIC doctoral students will soon get their chance to slay this cyber-Hydra through a multi-disciplinary academic attack.

UIC is receiving $3.2 million from the National Science Foundation over the next five years to form an IGERT — Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship program — where doctoral students in a variety of fields tackle electronic security and privacy matters from business, engineering, legal and social science perspectives.

“Technological expertise is a necessity to fight these threats, but technological solutions divorced from human, social, economic and legal considerations all too often fail,” said Robert Sloan, professor and head of computer science and a principal investigator of the IGERT grant.

Lead principal investigator Venkat Venkatakrishnan, associate professor of computer science, has been a pioneering researcher of online security and privacy issues since his days as a doctoral student.

Venkatakrishnan headed up efforts to secure the IGERT grant with the aid of more than a dozen researchers at UIC and other universities.

Sloan’s collaboration with Chicago-Kent College of Law professor Richard Warner, teaching courses on privacy and security to a mix of computer science and law students, convinced him of the benefits to multidisciplinary instruction.

Other co-PIs on the grant include:

• Ranganathan Chandrasekaran, associate professor of information and decision sciences, who will focus on the economics of information security and risk analysis

Steve Jones, professor of communication, who will study user attitudes towards security and privacy technologies

Annette Valenta, professor of biomedical and health information sciences, who will focus on health care electronic security and privacy — a major concern as health records become digitalized.

Between 25 and 30 doctoral students will receive $30,000 annual stipends plus tuition for two years. The first students are likely to start the program in fall 2012. Student eligibility requirements include U.S. citizenship or green card.

While students will earn their Ph.D.s from various academic departments, Sloan said each will take five required multidisciplinary courses and write a dissertation on a topic related to electronic security and privacy.

“We anticipate creating a new concentration in electronic security and privacy, so a student will graduate with a Ph.D. in, for example, communications, electrical and computer engineering or computer science with a concentration in electronic security and privacy,” he said.

The IGERT programs aim to broadly educate graduate students in a range of disciplines, training them to become future leaders in education, research and other professional positions. This is UIC’s third IGERT program (the others are in computational transportation science, directed by computer science professor Ouri Wolfson, and environmental biodiversity, directed by biological sciences professor Mary Ashley).

Sloan said that the time is right for the new program.

“Malware and cyber-attack losses are estimated to run into at least the billions of dollars a year,” he said. “Simultaneously, we face increasing loss of control over our personal information which can be stolen by cyber-attacks or made public through social media.”


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