PORTLAND, Maine — If the study of cybersecurity is the needle, the University of Southern Maine’s new closed-network computer lab will provide the haystack.
That’s how Edward Sihler, the project’s technical director, described the new laboratory unveiled Tuesday. The program has three goals: train students for the in-demand field of cybersecurity, provide an incubator for development of new technologies and software, and make connections with businesses in the area that might help students gain real-world experience.
Eric Dubois, a senior at USM from Biddeford, said he expects his experience helping to build and set up the lab will distinguish him from other job seekers when he enters the market next spring.
“I’m not going to lie, this past summer I learned the most of all,” said Dubois. “Schooling should be more hands-on.”
USM’s new president, David Flanagan, said the project is an example of the direction that university programs should take.
“This is a happy, happy day for USM,” he said, praising the new lab for being “useful, practical, relevant, student-centric” and the result of partnerships between the public university and the private sector.
The lab looks a little like the site of a hackathon, where programmers gather to tackle software problems. That’s not far off from how the program, the product of about $1 million in state and federal grants, is coming together. A core group of 11 students based at various stations is working on different problems.
At the center, a group is taking on the construction of a virtual town, where computers will play the role of a person browsing the Internet. Another work station provides a “virtual coffee shop,” where a maligned network provides real examples of how credit card and other information is stolen on open networks. Those stations all yield tips for the project to incorporate into its cybersecurity guide for small organizations.
“We’ve got to have a town to practice on,” Sihler said, noting that the new lab could support up to about 30 regular students before needing more space.
That lab will be the hub for the Maine Cyber Security Cluster, which eventually will reach one tentacle north to the University of Maine at Presque Isle campus and another south to York County Community College. The college recently scored a $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to support that expansion to allow students across the three campuses to simulate real-world attacks on networks of all shapes and sizes.
Sihler said that connection will allow teams of students to take on real-world problems, perhaps originating somewhere off-site, as part of the lab’s simulated online ecosystem.
Access to that kind of training stands to be a boon for Maine companies, Sihler said, as more students will graduate with cybersecurity knowledge increasingly needed across almost all sectors of the economy.
The second benefit to companies in the state will be in providing a closed environment for testing new equipment or checking a set of data for any possible viruses.
Within the university system, Sihler said projects at the lab will provide real-world examples for other disciplines — including media, communications and philosophy — to take on questions raised by our increasingly digital lives.
University officials and others close to the project hailed its completion Tuesday as a success in collaboration between the public university and the private sector.
Martha Bentley, who works with the Maine Technology Institute’s Cluster Initiative program, which gave a grant to the cybersecurity project, praised the project for providing a focal point for making cybersecurity improvements at companies across the state.
Ande Smith, president of the business consultancy Deer Brook Associates and Maine Cyber Security Cluster board member, said Tuesday the physical lab is a representation of a growing community in the state around the issue of cybersecurity, which he said will provide an economic boon.
Estimates of the national impact of cybersecurity breaches on companies and consumers hovers around $100 billion. Sihler said he doesn’t know what the cost is to Maine companies, but that it would be in proportion with the national figures, as attackers aren’t limited by geography.
The university’s program taps into a rising national concern with cybersecurity. Last year marked the first time the U.S. government revealed the scope of breaches it identified, generating notices to more than 3,000 companies.
Closer to home, Dubois hopes that rising need and his newly earned training will land him a job.