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Art Bakke, information security officer for the Bismarck, N.D.-based Starion Bank, leads a cybersecurity session at a conference hosted by the bank. IMAGE: STARION BANK

Cyberopportunity: That’s how to think of cybersecurity, one of the upper Midwest and the world’s fastest growing fields

So you missed your chance to get in on the ground floor at Microsoft, eh?

And you’ve been kicking yourself for years, ever since you neglected to buy Apple stock when the price was low?

Then this is your lucky day.

Because now’s your chance to ride the next wave. And best of all, you can catch this particular wave right here the Midwest.

What field is it that seems poised for such growth?

The field is cybersecurity. And a moment’s reflection will convince you that the forecast is likely true.

“Think of it this way,” said Jeremy Straub, assistant professor of computer science at North Dakota State University.

Once upon a time, you had a personal computer in your home with just one server, which meant just one firewall, Straub said. But now, you may be connected to the Internet via your phone, your watch, your thermostat, your vacuum cleaner, your refrigerator, your Xbox, your car, your home security system, even your pacemaker and your hearing aid.

Plus, the number of those connections is going to grow, not shrink.

And all of those devices need security.

“Now, multiply those numbers for one individual by the billions of people and businesses around the world,” Straub said.

“You’ll start to see the demand.”

No wonder North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota are launching extensive cybersecurity training programs and other initiatives. And no wonder reported that “many entry-level cybersecurity jobs have a starting salary of $80,000 or more,” while headlined one story, “Top cybersecurity salaries In U.S. metros hit $380,000.”

In this story, we’ll look first at the field’s growth in a bit more detail. Then we’ll highlight local initiatives that are trying to meet the demand – including in South Dakota, where at one university, a $60 million cybersecurity-degree expansion is now underway.

The demand

“As the CEO of Symantec said, the demand for a cybersecurity workforce is expected to rise to 6 million globally by 2019, with a projected shortfall of 1.5 million,” said Art Bakke, information security officer for the Bismarck-based Starion Bank.

Along those lines, “the Bureau of Labor Statistics says that demand for information security professionals is expected to grow by 53 percent through 2018.”

It’s not just the “Internet of things” that’s creating this demand, although those numbers, too, are staggering. Some 30 billion devices are likely to be hooked up to the Internet by 2020, Bakke said.

It’s also the viciousness, scale and increasing frequency of hacker attacks. As recently as early September, Equifax announced a data breach compromising the personal information of 140 million Americans, nearly half of the people in the United States.

“That’s why I don’t think the cybersecurity bubble – unlike a lot of the bubbles out there – is ever going to pop,” said Mike Lehmberg, security analyst for Network Center Inc., a Fargo-based tech solutions firm.

“As things get more interconnected, we’re going to need more people to secure them, not fewer. Because no matter how much of a supercomputer we may have, if people can find a way of securing something, others will find a way of breaking it.”

The supply

But don’t despair. The upper Midwest can be a leader in vaccinating society against computer viruses and hackers, Bakke and others said.

Geography is not a concern, after all. Employers everywhere need cybersecurity workers; plus, many in the field can telecommute. So, cybersecurity workers in Minnesota and the Dakotas can get great-paying jobs without having to move.

The burgeoning unmanned aircraft systems sector demands specialized cybersecurity; and at the University of North Dakota, electrical engineering faculty member Prakash Ranganathan and his students already are leading in that work.

At NDSU, North Dakota’s open roads are a plus, because Jeremy Straub’s team eventually will use those roads to test hacker-proofed self-driving cars.

In fact, the entire North Dakota University System is focusing on cybersecurity.

Prompted by Chancellor Mark Hagerott, former deputy director of the Center for Cyber Security Studies at the U.S. Naval Academy, this focus is resulting in programs such as a joint Graduate Certificate in Cyber Security.

Students take three core courses – one each from UND, NDSU and Minot State University – plus an elective, and wind up with a broad foundation in the topic.

In South Dakota, meanwhile, Dakota State University in Madison, S.D., got there first. For years the school has been a leader in cybersecurity, holding four Centers of Academic Excellence designations from the National Security Agency and Department of Homeland Security. Then in August, philanthropists Miles and Lisa Beacom and T. Denny Sanford announced a joint gift of $30 million to the school.

When matched by state and federal grants, the gifts will help DSU expand its offerings, in part by building an $18 million cyber lab where students and researchers can work on classified information.

The skills

Jim Griffith is CEO of Corporate Technologies, a Minneapolis-based firm with offices in Fargo and elsewhere. For his part, he hopes all of these schools train professionals who know methodology, not just technology.

“Whatever technology they’re teaching this year, in three years it’s not going to be relevant,” Griffith said.

“The methodology – that’s more important. How do you troubleshoot? How do you trace a problem back to its source?

“Make sure they keep training people who are strong investigators,” he said.

And make sure their ethics are strong as well, said Kevin Fishbeck, associate professor of computer information systems at the University of Mary in Bismarck.

The University of Mary teaches ethics as part of its cybersecurity classes.

“When you’re setting up firewalls, and you have the ability to do backdoors and other things like that, you have to have the moral strength not to take advantage of that,” Fishbeck said.

“We tell our students, it’s like ‘Spiderman’: ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’

“Ethics is a very big component of what we try to stress.”