How to diversify and strengthen the field of cybersecurity?

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Given the cyber threats to U.S. security — including recent Russian-sponsored threats against our critical infrastructure — it’s critical that more people be trained in cybersecurity. It is particularly important that these individuals be representative of the nation as a whole and reflect the diversity of the country. According to a 2021 report from the Aspen Tech Policy Hub, African Americans make up only 9% of the cybersecurity industry, which is lower than their representation in the general population. As the report states, “Following the national racial justice judgment in mid-2020 prompted by the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans, it has become clear that current diversity efforts , Equity and Inclusion (DEI), however well-meaning, have not addressed the overwhelming whiteness and masculinity of the cybersecurity field.The field remains remarkably homogeneous, both among technical practitioners and political thinkers. , and there are few model programs or initiatives that have demonstrated real progress in building diverse and inclusive teams.

Recently, the National Security Agency (NSA) partnered with Bowie State University, a historically black university in Bowie, Maryland, for an intensive 8-week program focused on diversifying the cybersecurity profession and engaging of African American students at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). The program concluded with the students presenting their research to NSA executives and representatives of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence during a virtual showcase.

Participants in Bowie’s intensive 8-week cybersecurity program were a combination of graduate and undergraduate students looking for an opportunity to build their skills and resume. The experience provided valuable training in artificial intelligence as well as opportunities for collaborative teamwork.

One of the professors who worked with the program at Bowie State is Benjamin Harvey, a Distinguished Visiting Research Professor. Harvey graduated from HBCU three times and majored in computer science. He graduated from Mississippi Valley State University (MVSU) in 2008 with a bachelor’s degree in computer science. He also earned an MS and PhD in Computer Science from Bowie State University (BSU) in 2011 and 2015, respectively.

According to Harvey, “The students were extremely dedicated. They built models and technologies that could help support our nation’s security. Each student received a challenge, developed by the NSA’s Cybersecurity Directorate in conjunction with Maxar Technologies and Bowie State University faculty. According to Harvey, “Each of the students’ analyzes will support the NSA’s provision of innovative techniques for future analysis. The NSA will now be able to further incubate the initial prototypes and leverage them to support future highly visible critical activities.

In his role as a mentor, he volunteered 10 hours a week, meeting individually with each student. For students who had no programming experience, Harvey taught them the basics of data science and machine learning. Many students started with little confidence that they would be able to pick up and complete the challenge within the 8 week time frame. As Harvey explained, “I believe one thing this program has taught students is that if you put in the time, energy, effort, and have the drive and desire to succeed, the sky is the limit.” By the end of the 8 weeks, the 4 groups of students had created a state-of-the-art prototype which was delivered to NSA experts in the form of papers and presentations.

While the program was meant to create a cybersecurity talent pool, according to Harvey, it’s also about framing and identifying students’ passions and skills. He shared, “I sat down with the students to learn more about what they were passionate about and their skills in matching challenge issues based on what each student was interested in and the skills needed to be successful.”

Harvey focused on demonstrating to the NSA the talent and contributions that HBCU students as a whole can make to cybersecurity. As he explained, “students at Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) – and HBCUs in particular – are often overlooked and excluded despite the fact that they bring a lot of talent to the table.”

As a Bowie State alumnus and having worked for the NSA for over a decade, Harvey shared, “I know there’s an amazing group of talent in this HBCU. My goal is to create a talent pool from Bowie State University to the NSA so that other black students who don’t normally have the opportunities available to them – due to their stints at smaller MSIs – have this lucky thanks to this program.

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