New approach to cyber security

A conversation with Bill Mackey, GR ’12, will leave you wanting to stock up on canned goods and stash money in your mattress.

A conversation with Bill Mackey, GR ’12, will leave you wanting to stock up on canned goods and stash money in your mattress.

“The (National Security Administration) put out a paper that said before the year 2025, we will see a cyber attack in the United States that will cause destruction or devastation more expansive and more expensive than any type of homeland threat we have seen in the history of America,” said Mackey, an assistant professor at State.

“Our critical infrastructure is specifically being targeted, and we’re not doing very well at defending it. A successful attack on our critical infrastructure could mean no running water, Internet or telephone outages; limited or no access to money, short supplies of food or medicine. It’s the scariest thing nobody has ever heard of.”

The good news is Mackey — and his students — are fighting the good fight to prevent such a calamity. The study of cybercrime from a social science perspective is also a new major being considered at State. “Plenty of people working to improve IT, but very few academics are looking at the behavioral side of things,” he said.

The idea is no matter how new or expensive the computer technology is, a business’ well-intentioned employees could leave the proverbial barn door wide open for attackers.

“We have people who are the weak links controlling our critical infrastructure — our power grids, our water lines, our medical institutions, our economic data, military installations, all of it — and every single day, hundreds of times a day, these places are under attack,” he said. “They are being probed, scanned, phished and subject to a multitude of behavioral deceptions by people trying to get in.”

Mackey and his students work to gain access to a business’ network through social engineering penetration testing. In other words, commit cyber crimes in an effort to prevent them.

“Cybercrime is big, and it’s only getting bigger, it affects everybody’s daily life, it’s nonstop, all day long, exponentially more than street crime, and yet we’ve done relatively little about it or for it in criminology. We’ve pretty much disregarded it,” Mackey said.

“I have companies that are currently asking me to send them interns. They love the idea of having someone skilled in behavioral sciences to do this work, so there is a lot of opportunity … to get students into jobs.”

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