Connect the Dots: Breaches are Bad for Business

Posted: Thursday, February 19, 2015 12:00 pm

By Benjamin Akande

Early in February, Anthem, the nation’s second-largest health insurance provider, disclosed that hackers had compromised its cyber security system, possibly gaining access to the names, social security numbers, birthdays, addresses and employment data of as many as 80 million customers.

The Anthem announcement was yet another reminder of the global vulnerability of cyber security systems.

A few months earlier, retail giant Target reported that hackers had attacked its system. Target was just one of many companies battered by cyber attacks last year. The U.S. Secret Service reported that hackers hit the in-store cash register systems at several large companies, including Target, Supervalu and UPS Stores. The Department of Homeland Security followed up with an advisory warning that the attacks were particularly pervasive. The Department added that the hackers stole data of millions of credit and debit cards from U.S. consumers. The companies apparently were not aware of the thefts at the time.

Authorities say the hackers sell the payment information of millions of U.S. consumers overseas on the black market. In the majority of the instances, these companies — and the consumers — are not aware of these breaches.

Cyber attacks are not confined to corporate America. Several municipalities around the country, including Columbia, Missouri, as well as federal government agencies such as the Pentagon have been casualties of these attacks.

As for Anthem, many observers see the recent attack as a wake-up call for the health-care industry and for the corporate world.

But in this high-tech age, cyber security breaches are a potential Achilles heel for everyone—businesses, nonprofits and government agencies. In addition to posing a significant risk to the bottom line of businesses, they also present a huge global security risk. The problems with cybersecurity only are likely to get worse. Forbes predicts that 2015 will be a big year for cyber attacks — just like it was in 2014 and 2013.

Like many farsighted universities around the country, Webster University has been taking steps to make the world more secure from hackers.

In the past year, the Walker school has declared its intentions to be a leader in preparing the next generation of cyber warriors to prevent and engage via a new master’s degree in cybersecurity management. The degree prepares students for positions in the public and private sectors, and for running or protecting computer systems, information, networks, IT infrastructure and communication networks.

Like most of our degrees at the Walker school, the MS in cybersecurity management is market-relevant. It is designed to teach the students how to solve and prevent problems for their future employers. Students learn how to use their practical and theoretical knowledge of cybersecurity to analyze real-world problems.

Such skills are desperately needed in today’s world.

Vast multi-national criminal networks continue to make huge profits from information stolen from large corporations and their vendors. The world’s leading law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI, Scotland Yard, the U.S. Secret Service and Interpol, have taken great strides in trying to keep up with the criminals or stay ahead of them. But the criminals are becoming increasingly sophisticated and have invested considerable resources into staying ahead of law enforcement. Furthermore, they now have greater expertise and more access to purchasing tools online to subvert cybersecurity systems of large corporations.

The porousness of cybersecurity systems also poses a threat to national and global security. Hackers have targeted both sides of the Russia-Ukraine conflict and Israeli military operations in Gaza.

Helping find solutions to such critical challenges is critical to the mission of any university. It makes institutions of higher education relevant and enhances their credibility with the general public. In this new and increasingly uncertain century, universities that fail to seize these opportunities to demonstrate relevance are doomed to fail.

Benjamin Ola. Akande is a professor of economics and dean of the George Herbert Walker School of Business & Technology at Webster University.