PORTLAND, Maine — Warning that the “next Pearl Harbor” will be a cyber attack against the nation’s infrastructure, U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, on Friday announced that the University of Maine System is the first in the country to receive the NSA’s stamp of approval for its cyber security program.

The U.S. National Security Agency and Department of Homeland Security have designated Maine’s public universities collectively to be a Center for Academic Excellence in Information Assurance Education, a distinction which has been given to about 130 individual institutions, but never before a full university system.

King touted the honor Friday at a news conference at the University of Southern Maine in Portland, where the Maine Cyber Security Cluster’s computer laboratory is located.

The designation comes at a time when the university system — and USM in particular — is attempting to stem a flow of bad news tied to budget cuts and what administrators have called a financial crisis.

The University of Southern Maine is seeking to cast itself as a lean, forward-looking “metropolitan university” that prepares students for 21st century careers.

That rebranding has been challenging, however, as new investments in programs like cyber security have coincided with deep cuts to faculty and staff, as well as the outright elimination of other programs.

But while university officials deemed programs like French and New England and American Studies — two of the five programs tapped for elimination since September — expendable, cyber security was highlighted Friday for connecting with a growth industry and being in line with USM’s new mission.

“It’s created a lot of jobs,” student Michael Guesev told King about public and private efforts to protect computer networks from hackers. “It’s a very high-growth field. I think it’s [expected to grow by] 22 percent over the next 10 years.”

Glenn Wilson, USM’s director of information and innovation, said there are an estimated 300,000 cyber security job openings in the country. He said criminals now make as much as $450 billion every year through cyber crimes such as stealing credit card numbers from retailers, an amount that tops the United States’ illegal drug market.

“It’s a good area for students to study,” he said. “There is great promise for career development.”

David Flanagan, USM’s acting president, said the NSA/Homeland Security designation remains valid through 2019 and will benefit cyber security students systemwide.

Raymond Albert, University of Maine at Fort Kent professor of computer sciences, said the distinction will open doors to new Department of Defense grants and opportunities to collaborate with other similarly accredited institutions.

“Just in this morning’s news, the NSA was predicting a cyber attack on power grids across the country,” Flanagan said. “The work we’re doing here today is vital to protecting our country against such insidious attacks.”

King called the NSA recognition “a big deal — this puts us on the map.”

“The next Pearl Harbor will be a cyber attack,” said King, who sits on the Senate’s intelligence committee. “There are people right now, at this moment, all over the world, trying to figure out how to steal our money, steal our jobs and also undermine our national security — whether it’s the power grid, the gas pipeline system, the financial system [or] the stock market.

“The only way we’re going to prevent this is through the innovation and determination of students like this,” he continued, referencing a group of Maine cyber security students gathered nearby. “This is a very real threat. This is a very real problem, not only in national security, but crooks. These students are going to be combatting them.”

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Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.