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NSA 101

It’s hard to imagine any organizations more obsessed with information security than the National Security Agency or American Express. Whether it’s spooks and cryptography or stockbrokers and credit scoring, both outfits are forever updating software and closing loopholes in an effort to stay ahead of hackers and identity thieves. And while the NSA and AMEX have more at stake than the average business, any company with a Web site and a client roster deals with online security issues.

It’s hard to imagine any organizations more obsessed with information security than the National Security Agency or American Express. Whether it’s spooks and cryptography or stockbrokers and credit scoring, both outfits are forever updating software and closing loopholes in an effort to stay ahead of hackers and identity thieves. And while the NSA and AMEX have more at stake than the average business, any company with a Web site and a client roster deals with online security issues. Just two years ago, Gartner estimated that 80 percent of Fortune 1000 would employ encryption security by 2007. The research firm now puts that number at 85 percent – by the second quarter of 2006. How is the IT market meeting the growing demand for IT security pros?

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Ernie Eugster asked himself the same question when he joined the faculty at the University of Denver two years ago. For answers, he tapped the expertise and support of organizations like the NSA and AMEX…

Eugster is a 20-year veteran of the computing industry. A director in the University’s masters program, he’s spent the past couple years building out the school’s information systems security curriculum. “We want to be one of the top five masters programs in the country,” he says. “When our ideal graduate walks out those doors, he or she will be a trusted gatekeeper.”

Since coming on board, Eugster has cultivated a faculty of high-profile instructors like Mark Merkow, an encryption expert and security strategist with American Express. In November, the University announced that it had been designated by the NSA as a Center of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance, raising the school’s profile and credibility in the industry. And the kicker? DU’s program can be completed entirely online.

Eugster and folks at the NSA hope that the quality and accessibility of security programs like DU’s will attract more students to the field. While advances in technology (like biometrics, for example) may serve to better protect us, better technology demands a better-educated workforce. And according to the McKinsey Quarterly (subscription required), that workforce is increasingly coming from overseas: “The 33 million university-educated young professionals in developing countries is more than double the number in developed ones.” That doesn’t bode well for US employment in general, let alone US employment in the information security sector (an area that typically requires a higher level of education).

Though DU’s program is just getting off the ground, Eugster is optimistic about its future. And with the NSA at his back, I’ll be the last to question him. But can US education turn the corner on higher education in security systems? That’s a question that, for now, even a cryptographer wouldn’t be able to answer.

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