Dr Jackie Riley talks about how GCU is equipping a future generation to assess the risks and combat the threat of attack in a digital age. Chris Fitzgerald reports.
But that is exactly what happened to owners of Minecraft last year, a game enjoyed by more than 23 million people globally, with 998,000 online at any given minute of the day.
The game’s servers were hit by a ‘botnet’ − a digital ‘denial-of-service’ attack that caused them to collapse.
As is the case with most of these offensives, the perpetrators remain unidentified.
Popular social media network Twitter and music-streaming site Spotify were also hit by copycat attacks, leaving users unable to access the services.
This is just one example of cybercrime methodology, which, according to Dr Jackie Riley − Assistant Head of Department, Computer Networking and Security − can range from being “inconvenient to disastrous”.
“Your email could be compromised, making your data vulnerable to being stolen; or organisations can find their systems under attack and disabled if they do not pay a ransom,” she says. “At the top end of the spectrum, our national infrastructure could be compromised, leading to mass power shortages.”
While Jackie believes everyone is at risk to cybercrime, she stresses two groups are more vulnerable than most.
“Often it is the over 60s who are most exposed as, while they are engaging with the digital age, they are not sufficiently aware to protect themselves from being scammed.
“Children are at risk, too, as they are playing more multiplayer games connected through the internet and are inherently trusting.”
As more and more devices are connected to the internet, the scope for criminals is increasing.
“The internet of things, as we call it, means that not only computers and networks in the traditional sense are at risk, but smart devices, washing machines, home CCTV and smart meters are all targets and can be exploited,” adds Jackie.
The problem seems clear. Global cybercrime is now at an industrial scale and is estimated to be costing $700bn annually. It is branded one of the top four risks to UK national security and in November last year the Government published its National Cyber Security Strategy, with the Cabinet Office declaring £1.9billion has been invested in combating the threat.
Efficient defences are needed like never before and Jackie says cyber security is definitely the answer − the protection of all networks, computers, computer programmes and devices.
“It is often the successful attacks that are made public,” Jackie says. “Many will know about the high-profile attacks on companies such as TalkTalk, for instance, but, behind the scenes, many are working to prevent these attacks.”
In a bid to ensure future generations are equipped to deal with the ever-growing threat, GCU has tailored three undergraduate programmes related to this field.
The first focuses on the fundamental basis of how all our devices are linked and how they can be secured and protected (BEng Network Systems Engineering, soon to be renamed BEng Computer Networking).
The second covers the security of networks, software and mobile devices, including analysis of the forensics to track vulnerabilities and detect criminal activities (BEng Digital Security, Forensics and Ethical Hacking, soon to be renamed BEng Digital Security and Forensics).
The third programme is a hybrid of the other two, combining network infrastructure and digital security analysis (BSc Cyber security and Networks).
“So, as you can see, it is a broad-ranging topic,” Jackie says.
“Our graduates are often recruited as penetration testers − they are employed to probe a company’s network and web pages to detect any vulnerabilities and then help fix these and secure the company. Others are looking at methodologies, not to protect, but to forensically investigate mobile devices and aid the police in solving crimes.”
Jackie has been at GCU for 23 years, having originally trained as a mathematician specialising in operational research. Far from being a vocational calling, Jackie’s role in managing the Networking and Cyber Security team came about by chance.
“The move to networking and security has evolved through University restructuring, necessitating me to adapt and focus on other areas,” she explains.
“I am fortunate that the analytical skills I have can be applied to a wide range of applications.”
Jackie believes work to promote cyber security in secondary schools is also leading to increased academic interest in the area.
“The recent launch of Cyber National progression awards for schools is helping to spark more of an interest. Any school pupils looking for an exciting, booming industry to work in need look no further than digital security to protect against cybercrime.”
She is also encouraged by the number of females wanting to take up the subject field.
“Gender balance in STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths] subjects is always an issue, but there are signs of improvement, particularly in the digital security area.”