ECU part of state cybersecurity initiative

East Carolina University will work with seven other universities and colleges as part of a $2 million initiative to boost cybersecurity education and research in North Carolina.

Issued by the National Security Agency on behalf of the U.S. Department of Defense, the grant is called the North Carolina Partnership for Cybersecurity Excellence (NC-PaCE) initiative.

Dr. Kamran Sartipi

“To keep up with the growing demand for sophisticated defense against cyberattacks, the NC-PaCE project aims to provide advanced artificial intelligence-based cybersecurity research, targeted curriculum development, skills development and work-based learning for industry employees and university graduates in North Carolina and beyond,” said Dr. Kamran Sartipi, assistant professor in ECU’s Department of Computer Science and a member of the research team. “The overarching goal of this initiative is to develop and implement a cybersecurity strategy for the commercial industrial sector, state government agencies and the defense industrial base in North Carolina, and to establish North Carolina as a national leader in cybersecurity.”

The grant is for two years with an optional third year. Dr. Laurie Williams of N.C. State is the principal investigator on the grant. Along with ECU, other institutions involved include N.C. A&T, UNC-Charlotte, and UNC-Wilmington, along with Pitt, Forsyth Technical and Wake Technical community colleges.

Hackers attacked the Colonial Pipeline in May, resulting in gas shortages in North Carolina and throughout much of the East Coast. More recently during the Fourth of July holiday, hackers infiltrated the technology firm Kaseya, affecting some of the company’s business clients throughout the world with a ransomware attack.

“Due to availability of complex information technology and highly connected information systems, the industrial, government and military sectors are becoming more vulnerable against sophisticated cyberattacks,” Sartipi said. “Cybersecurity expertise is in high demand, and North Carolina is among the top five states in the U.S for cybersecurity jobs with the average annual salary for cybersecurity jobs exceeding $100,000.”

Sartipi, who has been at ECU since 2016, said the grant is important for the university.

“This initiative provides several opportunities for ECU researchers and educators in cybersecurity to closely collaborate with a wide range of expertise and centers to develop large and multi-institutional grant proposals, co-supervise Ph.D. students and participate in research centers in cybersecurity,” he said.

Sartipi, who teaches computer science and software engineering courses, said two ECU graduate students and two ECU undergraduate students would be involved in the work that would include research and development toward a data intelligence as a service (DIaaS) online lab for hands-on training for industry and academia.

“This center will become an integral part of ECU’s smart manufacturing center,” Sartipi said.

The College of Engineering and Technology’s new Center for Smart Manufacturing will allow for hands-on cybersecurity education that will focus on data generation and communications. The center will provide simulated manufacturing environments for students as well as for regional industries. Through the use of cloud-based and artificial intelligence-powered services, students will be trained on aspects of network security and anomalous behavior detection. Students will be involved in developing a virtual cybersecurity training center, while faculty members will be able to perform research on new approaches to cybersecurity.

The National Centers of Academic Excellence in Cybersecurity solicited institutions for the grant. ECU has been designated a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense since 2003. The goal is to reduce vulnerability in information infrastructure by promoting higher education and research in cybersecurity.

ECU’s departments of computer science and technology systems offer undergraduate and graduate programs that are designed to produce professionals in cybersecurity disciplines while increasing the understanding of cybersecurity technology, policy and practices that enable the country to prevent and respond to cyberattacks. The programs also contribute to the advancement of cybersecurity knowledge and practices.