The Role of Electrical and Computer Engineers in Cybersecurity

23 June, 2021

electrical and computer engineering cybersecurityDespite the growing number of cybersecurity threats businesses and government agencies face, many organizations still don’t have the tools or trained personnel to keep up. In 2019, hackers exposed personal information of customers at major companies like Capital One and T-Mobile, ransomware targeted more than 50 U.S. cities, and supply chain attacks compromised the products released by several software companies. The need is only growing for professionals who understand today’s threats and are prepared for what’s coming next.

That’s why cybersecurity experts in electrical and computer engineering are essential at small firms and international powerhouses alike. Electrical and computer engineers work on projects at the vanguard of fields like high-performance computing, network engineering, systems design, and manufacturing. For these initiatives to succeed, technical teams must address the constant dangers inherent in our world of high-speed global connections.

Engineers protect sensitive data against an ever-evolving array of threats by applying their skills in areas like systems architecture, machine learning, modeling, and reverse engineering. They play a vital role in building a more secure future for technologies like self-driving cars and connected medical devices. By exploring what engineering concepts are utilized in cybersecurity, you may discover powerful methods to solve urgent problems and opportunities to advance your career.

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Strategize to Protect Critical Infrastructure

Any cyberattack is cause for concern, but when the target is a utility provider, government facility, or hospital, the results can be dire. Electrical and computer engineers develop and protect critical infrastructure in a wide range of industries and government agencies. As defined by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), an asset is considered critical if its failure would be catastrophic for a nation’s security, economy, or public health and safety.

The DHS identifies 16 sectors in this category:

  • Chemical facilities
  • Commercial facilities
  • Communications
  • Critical manufacturing
  • Dams
  • Defense industrial
  • Emergency services
  • Energy
  • Financial services
  • Food and agriculture
  • Government facilities
  • Healthcare and public health
  • Information technology
  • Nuclear reactors, material, and waste
  • Transportation systems
  • Water and wastewater systems

Electrical and computer engineers mount cyberdefense for infrastructure by drawing on their capabilities in problem-solving, design, and testing. For example, University of Arizona electrical and computer engineering faculty took the lead in a Partnership for Proactive Cybersecurity Training funded by a $3 million grant from the National Nuclear Security Administration. Researchers set out to develop protective measures modeled from biological immune systems while also training students in high-demand cybersecurity skills.

Principal investigator Salim Hariri, a UA professor of electrical and computer engineering, explained that he and his colleagues believe they can train machine learning algorithms to act as a “cyber immune system.” Current processes often fail to alert response teams until it’s too late, a situation that’s proven disastrous in cases like the Capital One data breach. Hariri envisions systems that recognize an anomaly in a fraction of a second, similar to the reflex that causes you to pull your hand away from a hot stovetop.

“We’re trying to build these abilities where, when somebody attacks your computer, these measures can detect the attack and act on it before you’re even aware something is compromised,” Hariri said.

Secure the Future of Transportation

Thanks to the power of cutting-edge machine learning and sensor technology, many of us can now imagine a world where driverless cars become a routine sight on the highway. To make that future a reality, engineers from a wide variety of disciplines are hard at work on vehicles that can set their own navigation paths, perceive obstacles, and operate even in poor weather conditions. These innovations may transform the daily commute and unleash a paradigm shift to shipping operations.

Electrical and computer engineers already contribute to the production of modern automobiles by designing and testing systems that power engines, control safety features, and collect important information from onboard sensors. But the chance to create vehicles that guide themselves with minimal human intervention has delivered fascinating new challenges.

For self-driving vehicles to consistently reach their destinations without incident, automakers need a combination of precise sensors, advanced control systems, and powerful cybersecurity. After all, autonomous vehicles are attractive targets for ransomware, and a remotely controlled car could turn into a lethal hazard on the road. To maintain self-driving car cybersecurity protections, engineers need to run extensive and frequent threat assessments, hardening electronic and electrical systems against hacks that would put passengers and others at risk.

Head Off Dangers in the Internet of Things

Users have adopted Internet of Things (IoT) devices for purposes ranging from controlling the temperature and lights in homes to tracking equipment in manufacturing facilities. The implementation of 5G cellular networks will open up even more possibilities by enabling systems to communicate at unprecedented speeds. But embracing the IoT’s revolutionary potential requires protecting a huge variety of embedded systems in connected sensors and devices.

Firms that implement IoT tools prevent disaster when they set integrated policies and forward-looking strategies for risk management. Embedded systems may collect and send data at a huge scale and share some of that information with third parties for processing or storage. If an organization doesn’t enforce strict procedures at every juncture, an overlooked vulnerability in even a relatively minor device could turn into a serious problem.

Computer and electrical engineering and cybersecurity professionals can help to secure an IoT-enabled enterprise, but they need to understand the interactions between multiple complex systems. In a project from UA’s Cloud and Autonomous Computing Center, Hariri has proposed a model of federated cybersecurity testbed as a service (FCTaaS) that would provide researchers with invaluable perspective on how a variety of smart infrastructure resources and services work together. This approach allows professionals and students discover the best strategies to bolster IoT cybersecurity, as well as protections for other systems that integrate digital communications and controls with physical control systems.

Safeguard Patient Information

In the hands of healthcare professionals, robust and accurate data can save lives. Connected medical devices enable healthcare providers to monitor vital signs, blood sugar levels, and other indications of an individual’s well-being remotely. But a hacked medical device might endanger a patient, and there are serious ethical concerns and regulations involved in any effort to collect, analyze, and store electronic health records. Under the requirements of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), healthcare organizations are responsible for maintaining the privacy of this information.

IT experts are working to achieve greater interoperability in medical organizations so valuable information can be easily shared between multiple providers. Initiatives to make treatment more targeted and efficient by creating a health IT ecosystem can lead to both cost savings and improved outcomes. Implementing the IoT for medicine would make it possible to document the effectiveness of treatment methods and reveal diseases in time for early intervention.

However, there are also increased risks if cybersecurity for networked medical devices is compromised. Electrical and computer engineers have the chance to manage these issues by developing devices and embedded systems that are resilient against breaches and malware. In healthcare organizations, it’s especially important to maintain up-to-date models for potential threats and institute an infrastructure that can react quickly when something goes wrong.

In turn, prioritizing medical device cybersecurity could open the door for more ways to collect and share details about individuals and entire populations. Many doctors are interested in expanding the use of wearable devices to monitor day-to-day progress and learn more about how lifestyle factors affect their patients’ well-being. Making it safer to collect and transmit the data from wearables paves the way for fresh insights and better adherence to treatment plans.

A compromised database may expose millions of people’s private information, and malware attacks cripple businesses and governments. But electrical and computer engineers drive technical advances that could create a future where devices, systems, and information are safer. In the process, engineering professionals can also take strides in their own careers. By earning a master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering, you can build your understanding of security strategy and build advanced solutions that adapt to emerging dangers.

About the University of Arizona’s Online Master of Science in Electrical and Computer Engineering

The University of Arizona College of Engineering ranks among the top 40 electrical and computer engineering departments in the country according to U.S. News & World Report. UA’s online Master of Science in Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) program is a perfect fit for working engineers looking to enter design-oriented roles and play a central part in the creation and planning phase of new technologies.

The University of Arizona offers flexible and varied online engineering programs that provide a comprehensive path to professional development. Through longstanding partnerships with some of the foremost technology companies in the country, graduates have gone on to pursue advanced positions at innovative global organizations that shape the future of the world.