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Academia is playing a growing role in cybersecurity

Several universities are pursuing initiatives to train students and workers, support industry and safeguard our country’s critical infrastructure.


Universities in Canada are joining the growing ranks of global cybercrime fighters. In June alone, three universities – Ryerson University, the University of Waterloo and the University of New Brunswick – announced initiatives to increase the country’s cybersecurity capacity.

Cybercrime is a serious and growing issue that affects all Canadians. The 2018 Cybersecurity Survey by the Canadian Internet Registration Authority found that 40 percent of firms experienced cyberattacks in the previous 12 months.

It also revealed that we are quite unprepared: 37 percent of companies don’t have anti-malware software, and only 54 percent of small business respondents provided cybersecurity training to their employees. The 2019 Annual Cybercrime Report says global cybercrime will cost $6 trillion US by 2021 through damaged data, lost productivity, intellectual property theft and more.

The flip side of any problem is opportunity. The global cybersecurity industry is growing rapidly and some analysts estimate it may be worth $300 billion by 2024. For universities, building expertise in this area can lead to more industry partnerships, the commercialization of new products and services, and spinoff companies. It also provides a chance to lead in training students for this talent-hungry field, one that Deloitte has forecasted needs to fill 8,000 positions in Canada between 2016 and 2021.

“Cybersecurity is often discussed as a challenge and threat, and that’s an important piece of the puzzle. But we lose sight of the fact that this is one of the fastest-growing sectors in the world,” said Charles Finlay, director of Ryerson’s new Rogers Cybersecure Catalyst. “One of the hallmarks of successful cybersecurity ecosystems is close collaboration between government, in-dustry and academia – that’s the model we want to emulate.”

The catalyst is a not-for-profit corporation Ryerson launched with $30 million in funding from the federal government, Rogers Communications, the Royal Bank of Canada and the City of Brampton, Ontario, and is scheduled to open in Brampton in November. A major thrust will be to deliver cybersecurity education to private- and public-sector professionals, including specialized training programs for under-represented groups such as women, new Canadians and displaced workers. The centre also plans to establish a technology accelerator specifically for cybersecurity firms and to facilitate applied R&D partnerships, drawing on the expertise of various Ryerson faculty members, including from the Ted Rogers School of Management and its Cybersecurity Research Lab.

The centre will also share information on cybersecurity best practices. “There is not enough information on cybersecurity challenges in the hands of folks who need it, like the three-person dentist office in Timmins that has no IT department and few resources. How do we help them?” said Mr. Finlay.

Another key factor driving higher-ed involvement in cybersecurity is that the federal government is actively championing this cause. In 2018, it introduced its National Cyber Security Strategy, which supports preparedness, innovation and skill-building through a $500-million investment over five years. In its 2019 budget, it set aside $80 million for creating national cybersecurity networks affiliated with postsecondary institutions to expand research and development partnerships between academia and the private sector, and to expand Canada’s talent pipeline.

While the funding for these networks has yet to be allocated, the National Research Council of Canada has already begun engaging with universities, starting with two of its long-time research partners, UNB and U of Waterloo. UNB’s Canadian Institute for Cybersecurity is a multidisciplinary membership-based outfit that works with private- and public-sector organizations to address their cybersecurity challenges. The new CIC-NRC Cybersecurity Collaboration Consortium will build on UNB’s existing research on protecting Canada’s critical information infrastructure.

“We want to be a player in developing practical solutions for what Canada is facing … create economic opportunities for Canadian companies and fill the gaps in the employment market,” said Ali Ghorbani, director of the CIC and holder of the Canada Research Chair in Cybersecurity. Operating out of NRC’s Fredericton facility on the UNB campus, the consortium brings together 50 researchers from both organizations as well as students.

The University of Waterloo, meanwhile, is a partner in the NRC-Waterloo Collaboration on Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things, and Cybersecurity. Researchers from both institutions, including at U of Waterloo’s Cybersecurity and Privacy Institute, will work together on several projects, including one focused on making blockchain – the technology that records and verifies online transactions between two parties – more efficient and less vulnerable to attacks by quantum computers.

At both of these university networks, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, will have opportunities to help carry out re-search. “A key part of our project is training students, and NRC and Waterloo are bringing different expertise to the table in different disciplines, so this will be a very enriching experience for the students,” says Charmaine Dean, vice-president, research, at U of Waterloo.

Aside from these three large-scale initiatives, cybersecurity is emerging as a focus at numerous other Canadian universities. Polytechnique Montréal has offered a baccalaureate in cybersecurity since 2017; York University’s school of continuing studies recently partnered with Mount Royal University to offer two certificate programs on the subject for IT managers and project leaders; and, this fall, the University of Guelph is introducing a Master of Cybersecurity and Threat Intelligence.

As well, Carleton and Concordia universities announced in July the forthcoming Open Source Cyber Fusion Centre, which will work to make digital-security operations more affordable to small businesses. The project is being supported by a $560,000 grant through the Cyber-security R&D Challenge, a $3-million program funded by the Ontario Centres of Excellence, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and Prompt, an ICT-focused non-profit.

“Cybercrime, including cyberespionage, are on the minds of most governments, and the threats evolve daily,” said Dr. Dean. “The academic world has the expertise to develop better methods to help respond to these threats.”

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