Using innovative technology and creative thinking, UNT researchers are working to outsmart cyber criminals and help build a growing workforce of professionals.
TEXT: TRISTA MOXLEY
Read more about how UNT is preparing the next-generation of cybersecurity professionals.
As cyber-attacks become more sophisticated and widespread, it’s more important than ever to be aware of how much technology has integrated into our daily lives — from our mobile devices and cars to city, government and health care records.
“Cybersecurity is critical to our technological infrastructure, and without it, we risk having our sensitive data — personal information, protected health records, intellectual property, data and government and industry information — compromised,” says Ram Dantu, professor of computer science and engineering and director of UNT’s Center for Information and Cyber Security (CICS), which is designated as a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense Education and Research by the National Security Agency and Department of Homeland Security.
And while advancing technology has created a new landscape for criminals, it’s also setting a new criterion for victims.
“To combat these risks of threat and damage, we’re looking at the intersection of organizations, people and technology,” says James Parrish, assistant professor of information technology and decision sciences in the G. Brint Ryan College of Business.
Parrish and Dantu together with other UNT researchers — spanning disciplines in information technology and decision sciences, accounting and computer science and engineering — are not only finding ways to stay one step ahead of the savviest cyber criminals, but taking deep dives into how to prepare the growing cybersecurity workforce to keep society safe. After all, nobody is immune. Those behind these criminal acts seek out and prey on all demographics.
“Older people are getting duped believing that the ‘Nigerian Prince’ really wants to give them money. People in poverty see these phishing emails as their way out,” Parrish says.“Folks in their 30s and younger grew up with technology, but they are still at risk. It really boils down to personal situations and how knowledgeable users are with respect to technology and cybersecurity issues and how do we help.”
Even without the digital risks of network safety and smart contracts, phishing schemes and personal attacks put information at risk on a personal level.
“There are new threats on the landscape every single day. If you look at things like phishing, that is just as psychological as it is technical,” Parrish says. “We did experiments recently where we sent phishing emails to a municipal organization that employs more than 1,400 individuals. They used the results from that research to more effectively focus training resources were they are most needed.”
Associate Professor of information technology and decision sciences Andy Wu led the test, which examined how demographic traits of the employees correlated with their susceptibility to phishing attempts. The team was assisted by doctoral alumnus Bart Hanus. The results found that younger employees were less likely to fall victim to phishing than more senior employees. Those with a lower income or who were working in more clerical, monotonous roles were also more likely to click phishing links.
“While these results should be taken with caution because the sample we had to work with was not large enough to be broadly generalizable, it did indicate that it may be beneficial for companies to collect data on their employees and job functions to identify the ones most susceptible to phishing,” Parrish says.
Michel Fathi, assistant professor of information technology and decision sciences, is focused on cybersecurity to make the world better for some of our most vulnerable populations.
“While there is a growing recognition by agencies, organizations and governments that Operations Research (OR) and analytics tools can offer significant improvements for people with special needs, including older adults, low income populations and young people, the research on social good analytics for preventing the rise of crime, disorder and authoritarian policing has been relatively slow and sporadic,” he says.
While technology has been a great accelerator in many areas, organized criminal groups have taken advantage of opening new markets, supply chains and technologies while exploiting weak regulation in financial markets and cyberspace.
“The internet has enabled expanding illegal economies, helping smugglers sell guns, drugs or humans on social media and communications apps, while also providing a goldmine of data used for corruption, extortion and carrying out other crimes,” Fathi says.
As the size, number and complexity of networks has grown, so has the number of cybersecurity attacks on average citizens.
Dantu recently received a $750,000 grant from the National Security Agency — the most recent in a series of grants totaling $2.5 million in the last two years — to use natural language processing and artificial intelligence techniques to collect and compile cybersecurity-related data into a database that universities can use to fine- tune their curriculum.
There are many practical applications for the platform. Cybersecurity experts can use it to better understand the intent behind emails, social media posts and blog posts to identify any threats. In addition, the platform can be used to ensure college curriculum aligns with job postings to meet the needs of the job market.
“You see lots of news about ransomware attacks and cyber-attacks, and some of these are done by foreign agencies,” Dantu says. “We need a large workforce to combat this, and we don’t have the workforce right now.”
Natural language processing also is being used with blockchain to create smart legal contracts. Jose Lineros, clinical assistant professor of accounting, is using blockchain with smart contracts, capitalizing on the operational advantages of permissioned blockchains that utilize collaborative, private, immutable, append-only distributed ledgers to strategically optimize business results.
“The importance of related IT governance frameworks is growing,” Lineros says. “Strategic IT governance, especially regarding permissioned blockchains, is crucial to accurate, valid and complete accounting data. Understanding the potential weaknesses of flawed capacity planning (computational and storage), cybersecurity risks, litigation uncertainty, regulatory refutation and smart contract vulnerabilities is key.”
Dantu and a team of UNT professors, including Kritagya Upadhyay, Yanyan He, Abiola Salau and Syed Badruddoja, have worked on a project to further understand the paradigm shift from paper legal contracts to smart contracts utilizing blockchain, natural language processing, machine learning and the Internet of Things.
“Blockchain could drastically change the audit profession,” Lineros says. “It could drastically change the legal profession. It’s going to change how business is done in the future.”
Of course, not all cybersecurity concerns are focused on a single network or individual. Dantu recently worked with computer science and engineering associate professors Kirill Morozov and Sanjukta Bhowmick to create a framework for securely and anonymously sharing cell phone data to help identify COVID-19 super-spreader events. Through anonymous contact networks built through cell phone data, the research helped
to locate active spreaders and communities. Balancing privacy and security of citizens’ COVID-19 data while still having the data needed for public safety was a key part of the research.
“Reliable contact networks can be built only through the participation of the population, yet privacy concerns often dissuade people from volunteering information regarding their locations, contacts, etc.," Dantu says. "Thus, a framework for securely sharing the data is critical to build people’s confidence and thereby generate accurate contact networks.”
Of the two groups needing the data — scientists and health professionals — each only needed pieces of the information, according to Dantu. Thus, data could be encrypted to only allow certain pieces to be shared to prevent identification of specific data.
His efforts focused on building the framework to make that happen, potentially helping prevent super-spreader events from kicking off new waves of COVID-19.
On a larger scale, Dantu is working on a solution for an issue that federal agencies have encountered while trying to implement an automatic cyber threat indicator. He allowed companies to submit their data to a large data pool anonymously without exposing whether or not they’ve been victims of attacks.
“The private sector is reluctant to disclose their cyber intelligence for privacy and market competitiveness concerns as other companies and/or the government may inadvertently leak their data, and because the value on investment is unclear,” Dantu says.
He is working on the details around a concept called a data cooperative, a large number of private companies coming together to all share encrypted data that would allow the public sector to generate analytics without directly accessing the data.
“The government is looking at the advancement of hacks and threats facing future technologies,” Dantu says. “We’re working on how to detect and mitigate these next-generation threats. We consider how we want to use the technology and research for the benefit of our communities and our citizens.”