A UTSA uniform during the 2015 National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition. Photo by Scott Ball.
A UTSA student uniform during the 2015 National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Experts from across the University of Texas system gathered at UTSA on March 30 and 31 for the Texas FreshAIR (Academic Industry Roundtable) Conference. The event showcased vital research and innovation from all 14 system institutions, as well as industry talent aimed at commercializing that research.

In urgent fields like cybersecurity and biomedical engineering, the sooner research can deliver actionable knowledge and useful products to practitioners, the better.

“Texas FreshAIR is packed with influential researchers and thought leaders who will present and discuss technologies that are essential to protecting our nation, growing our economy and delivering health care efficiently,” said Patricia Hurn, Ph.D., UT System’s vice chancellor for research and innovation.

Mauli Agrawal, vice president for research at UTSA, announces the UTSA-Microsoft research collaborative. Photo Mark McClendon of UTSA.
Mauli Agrawal, vice president for research at UTSA. Photo Mark McClendon of UTSA.

This year’s conference focused primarily on cybersecurity, Big Data, and data analytics. All of these topics have recently made headlines as consumers have watched Apple face off with the FBI, only to have the phone in question hacked by a non-Apple employee. It was not terribly long ago that Target customers saw their financial information jeopardized by hackers, and the nation debated privacy vs. security concerns of NSA’s access to bulk metadata.

Recent demand for constantly improving cybersecurity catapulted UTSA’s program to national prominence. UTSA is one of 44 institutions in the nation recognized as a National Center of Academic Excellence (CAE) in Information Assurance (IA)/Cyber Defense (CD) by the National Security Agency (NSA) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Mauli Agrawal, UTSA’s vice president for research, feels that this is the niche from which UTSA can best serve San Antonio and the United States. He would like to build on the designation, and see a government laboratory on the UTSA campus where researchers and students would collaborate with the nation’s top security specialists to build a security framework and analysis system for small to midsize businesses.

Agrawal points out that hackers know that they cannot breach the security systems of high value entities head on; They usually ride in through an unprotected back door. In the case of Target, a local HVAC company was the conduit for hackers when they were given access to the company’s internal systems for efficiency updates.

Large high value targets (no pun intended) currently have no way of knowing how wide of a door they are opening every time they hire a local subcontractor, because many small to mid-sized businesses simply don’t understand their own vulnerability.

“They don’t know what is readiness and what is not,” Agrawal said.

UTSA researchers are proposing a system of protocols that would help smaller businesses — those who cannot afford an in-house security department — evaluate their cybersecurity and receive a rating they could then use as an asset in the bidding process or market to consumers.

Essentially, Agrawal said, our interconnectedness has brought us to the point that every individual or entity poses risk to the global networks.

“Each of us is carrying a portal in our pocket,” he said.

For San Antonio, a government cybersecurity lab would bring a new infusion of jobs to the tech landscape. For the United States government, a laboratory on the UTSA campus would open up a pipeline of premier talent ready at hand. Graduates of UTSA’s cybersecurity program will have worked with some of the most sophisticated technology in open cloud computing, under some of the most respected researchers in the field, including Dr. Ravi Sandhu and Dr. Nicole Beebe.

UTSA’s cybersecurity program has been ranked No. 1 in America by a national survey of certified information technology security professionals conducted by the Ponemon Institute.

Justin Gray works during the 2015 National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition. Photo by Scott Ball.
UTSA student Justin Gray (center) works with his team during the 2015 National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition in April 2015. Photo by Scott Ball. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Data security concerns only grow as information transfer becomes more and more cloud-based. In the case of cloud computing, every time data is moved on or off the cloud, it opens the possibility of a breach.

Personally, while Agrawal sees the value of connectedness as worth the risk, he simply doesn’t set himself up to depend on connected devices for privacy.

“Anything on my phone is absolutely public,” he said.

In his presentation at the conference, Sandhu pointed out that the three main services of cloud computing — software, platform, and infrastructure — each come with their own unique security concerns. UTSA’s goal is to provide practical solutions in each.

Texas FreshAIR also focused on data analytics as it relates to health care, another topic that places personal privacy and public welfare at odds to some degree. Currently, the digitization of health care records, hospital systems, pharmaceutical data, and other areas across the medical field have produced mountains of data. Within those mountains, Agrawal said, are patterns that could lead us to prevention, early intervention, and drastically reduced health care costs when we look at population health.

“Unless you do analytics on it, that data doesn’t become knowledge,” he said.

Again, however, the vulnerability of the individual, the fact that each of the 0’s and 1’s in the data correlates to a person’s most intimate details, comes to the forefront. If public health and government officials can look for patterns, what is to stop marketing agencies from capitalizing on the same data (as they already do with purchase histories and social media profiles)? What about those with more nefarious goals?

Every day these concerns are weighed by researchers in every arena.

“We have to confront that now,” he said.


*Top image: A UTSA uniform during the 2015 National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition. Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.