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Baltimore-Washington Corridor Emerges As Front Line of Defense in Cyberwars

A UMBC research park has turned into a national cybersecurity powerhouse.

In the last year, more than a dozen cybersecurity companies have moved into a research park near the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC). Until now, they've been under the radar, so to speak.

Some call it a "Cyberhive"– a swarm of activity by a vast army of the country's most innovative thinkers in internet security. Their mission: to counter by mouse click the constant threats against the nation's digital networks.

It’s a corporate incubator where promising start-ups can mingle with large defense contractors such as Northrop Grumman and Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) to develop emerging technologies for the newly formed U.S. Cyber Command down the street at the National Security Agency in Fort Meade.

“This region is becoming the center of cybersecurity,” says Armando Seay, senior executive vice president of Ross Technologies, which provides cybersecurity services for the Department of Defense and private-sector clients. In May, his company is moving its offices from Columbia into the UMBC park called bwtech.

“It’s like a beehive, a cyberhive, a hotbed of critical thinking and innovation,” Seay says. “There’s no reason why this campus won’t become Cybersecurity Valley.”

According to state representative Del. James Malone, 51 cybersecurity companies have recently relocated to Maryland, bringing about 5,000 jobs. This is on top of a get gain of up to 60,000 employees expected to move into the state in coming years from the Pentagon’s base realignment and closure program.

“Our goal is to make Maryland the epicenter of cybersecurity in the country,” Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley told Patch.

Vast portions of the country’s critical infrastructure rely on computerization, from banking and finance to power grids, phone systems, air traffic control and nuclear power plants. 

Computers run everything in daily life from elevators to supermarket checkouts and medical diagnostic machines, and personal information is maintained in electronic databases. Americans can’t effectively vote, shop, drive, pay tolls, communicate or access information without digital technology.

“Without us being aware of it, we as a society are becoming networked, from how we drive to how we use the phone to how we turn on the lights,” says Seay. “The technology that empowers our ability to have our daily lives is also subject to abuse. There are people around the world taking advantage of vulnerabilities and engaging in espionage and all sorts of things.”

Cyber threats are growing at an alarming rate, both in absolute numbers and also in terms of the information at stake.

report released on April 5 by software security firm Symantec disclosed a massive volume of threats on the Internet, with 286 million new threats recorded in 2010 – a 93 percent increase over the previous year. Mobile devices and social networks such as Facebook are areas of burgeoning cyber threats, according to the report.

“The nature of the threats has expanded from targeting individual bank accounts to targeting the information and physical infrastructure of nation states,” the Symantec report said.

In the wake of a serious breach of military network security, in June of 2009 Secretary of Defense Robert Gates approved a plan to consolidate the cybersecurity activities of the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard into the U.S. Cyber Command, located at Fort Meade and led by Keith B. Alexander, chief of the NSA – the agency in charge of foreign communications, signals intelligence and code-cracking.

Just as the U.S. Strategic Command is responsible for the nuclear arsenal and defending against hostile incursions into the nation’s air space, the new U.S. Cyber Command protects against threats to the country’s virtual space.

The Cyber Command “is going to mean a tremendous number of jobs throughout the state,” says O’Malley. “This will do for information technology what the National Institutes of Health has done for medicine.”

Providing a space for collaboration and the percolation of cutting-edge ideas is vital to the health of the Cyberhive.

UMBC now offers a post-graduate certificate and a master’s degree in cybersecurity, which draws candidates from across the country.

“Cybersecurity is a growing area,” says bwtech Executive Director Ellen Hemmerly. “The demand for this kind of talent is strong and very competitive.”

Northrop Grumman and SAIC are “good examples of companies with a vested interest in ensuring that innovation comes out of our universities,” Hemmerly says. “Having cybersecurity companies located on campus presents a lot of opportunities for students.”

SAIC created a Cyber Innovation Center nearby in Columbia, which it describes as an “agile collaboration space” for its far-flung technical people and outside vendors to fuse cybersecurity ideas, services and technology.

Last fall, Northrop Grumman created a “scholarship program” at UMBC for early-stage companies with promising cybersecurity ideas. Northrop is looking for high-potential technology to develop and commercialize, and through the scholarship program offers small companies around the country a spot in UMBC’s incubator park and access to the cyberhive.

“There are benefits to having other companies in your vicinity to partner with,” says Ayinde Stewart, chief executive officer of Clear Resolution Consulting, a cybersecurity start-up with 15 employees based at bwtech.

“UMBC is a huge producer of technical talent,” Stewart says. “This is a good place to be.”

This October, SAIC and UMBC are launching a statewide Cyber Challenge, a conference and competition of white-hat hacking for high school students, college students and professionals.

Co-founders of the Cyber Challenge include the National Cyber Security Alliance, a national nonprofit group that includes Microsoft, McAfee, PayPal, Visa, Google, Cisco and other major corporate interests.

“It’s a huge, huge business,” Seay says. “Every aspect of our lives has some vulnerability. There is a huge demand for personnel to protect the nation, our corporations, everything that’s computerized.”

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