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Editorial: Defending against cyberattack

Editorial: Defending against cyberattack

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An artist’s rendering shows what Virginia Tech’s new Innovation Campus in Northern Virginia will look like. 

The new Commonwealth Cyber Initiative is already preparing students for important careers and protecting businesses, organizations and individuals from exploitive attacks. These timely efforts are placing Virginia on the cutting edge of this burgeoning field.

As part of its successful pitch to woo Amazon, Virginia’s leaders pledged to invest generously — to the tune of $1.1 billion over 20 years — to expand computer science programs and related fields at the state’s public universities. The company’s HQ2, with its related boom in employment and housing, is centered in Northern Virginia, but the emphasis on tech education programs will create opportunity across the commonwealth.

Even before state legislators made that promise, plans were in the works for a state-of-the-art program to beef up university research in cybersecurity and other high-tech fields. Legislators approved the CCI in 2018, the year Amazon made its decision to split its HQ2 footprint between New York City and Crystal City, creating a statewide network of researchers at colleges and universities who collaborate across disciplines.

The timing is ideal, with disruptive and costly cyberattacks on individuals, industry and government on the rise. The COVID pandemic has forced many institutions and businesses to rely heavily on virtual meetings, document sharing and cloud-based services that are vulnerable to cyberattacks.

The new programs also create promising career paths for students, as Virginia alone already has more than 54,000 cybersecurity positions — usually jobs that pay well — unfilled. Besides educating the workforce for a fast-growing field, many of the cybersecurity programs will offer immediate help to businesses struggling to maintain cybersecurity.

The network’s anchor is at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, which is building a new “innovation campus” for graduate students in Alexandria, again tied to the Amazon decision. The CCI is backing innovative programs at colleges and universities throughout Virginia.

In Western Virginia, those partners include Radford University, Virginia Military Institute, UVa Wise, Liberty University, and several community colleges, including Virginia Western and New River.

In Norfolk, Old Dominion University used money from the CCI last fall to help it turn its existing Center for Cybersecurity and Education and Research into a new School of Cybersecurity. The ODU school offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees in cybersecurity and is one of only 21 schools across the country to have a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Operations designation from the National Security Agency.

The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg and Tidewater Community College, with campuses in several Hampton Roads cities, are part of a collaboration involving eight Virginia schools, using funds from CCI for research projects in cybersecurity and security for autonomous vehicles. The plan is for researchers to make it possible for students to work on projects developing real-world cybersecurity solutions for businesses and industry.

Such programs made possible with the help of the CCI are great for Virginia both immediately and in the long run. They will strengthen our state’s college and university systems, preparing them to tackle 21st century problems. They will help many Virginia students prepare themselves for the careers of the future. They promote cooperation among universities and between universities and business and industry.

And, as they help build Virginia’s reputation as a forward-looking hub for cybersecurity, they will attract new industries and strengthen the economy even as times and technologies change. Virginians will have expanded job opportunities, whether at Amazon’s HQ2 or with other businesses and industries that need people who understand the challenges of identifying and eliminating vulnerabilities and stopping attacks.

Gov. Ralph Northam, state lawmakers, university officials and everyone who had the vision to see the importance of establishing the CCI deserve credit for putting Virginia on this path. It’s smart to provide funds to build tech education in universities across the state. It’s good to encourage collaboration and cooperation. It was wise to make a convincing case for Amazon to build its HQ2 in Virginia, and then live up to the promises. College administrators, professors and students who are joining this effort to make Virginia a cybersecurity leader deserve our support.

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