Like Sputnik, Cyber Attacks Demand a New Approach to Education
Network breaches should spur a new focus on STEM — and ethics.
When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, it was the space shot heard around the world. As the first artificial satellite circled the Earth, its radio pulses picked up by ground stations scattered across the globe, Western scientists recognized a technological breakthrough that threatened our national security. The United States answered with a “Space Race” that reshaped our educational system to produce scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. Our response to Sputnik helped our nation to land the first man on the moon—and to create a space infrastructure that to this day fosters national security, economic prosperity, and scientific discovery.
The growing list of major cyberattacks on this country amount to one modern-day Sputnik after another. A wide spectrum of private-sector entities, from banks and credit agencies to the entertainment industry, have faced attacks from foreign governments and intrusions from criminal enterprises. Infrastructure vital to energy, water, and communications is constantly probed by adversaries seeking asymmetric advantage; Russia has already exploited cyberspace in an attempt to delegitimize our democratic institutions. Incredibly, with the Equifax breach, up to 44 percent of the American people may have had their personal data compromised online.
The oceans that once separated America from its adversaries cannot protect a modern society from network attacks. But efforts to raise defenses in this new era have largely focused on their technical aspects: building secure, resilient networks and teaching experts to protect them. This is no longer sufficient. Leaders from the business, law enforcement, academic, and government communities were recently gathered by the Center of the Study of the Presidency & Congress in Charlotte, North Carolina, to identify better ways to meet our modern-day Sputnik moment.
First and foremost is the need for a better educated cyber workforce. More needs to be done to lay a foundation of technical literacy through STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education. Strengthening the quality of STEM education is vital, and the effort must go beyond simply meeting benchmarks such as proficiency on standardized tests. A more holistic approach to STEM should explore the practical relationships between these disciplines and daily life, thus nourishing in the next generation a technical curiosity that begins in early childhood and spans long careers. Such an approach will ensure that innovation and adaptability become second nature in our approach to cyber technology.
Our discussions also highlighted the importance of domestic political and geostrategic context in considering cybersecurity. The disciplines of political science, international relations, international security, criminology, finance, accounting, management science—just to name a few—all come into play when considering a cyberattack, and its effects on private companies and government institutions. Without knowledge of these fields, it’s impossible to fully understand the motives behind cyber incidents, or to gauge their likely impact. Well-rounded cyber practitioners will also need skills in team-building, management, and critical thinking to communicate to laymen and women the relative importance of a cyber event, and the steps needed to protect vital interests.
Importantly, in creating a well-rounded cyber workforce we must reevaluate how character, ethics, and civics are taught in our education system. Montreat College, a faith-based institution of higher learning and a partner in our Charlotte discussion, has developed a cyber curriculum that emphasizes ethics, though not strictly in a religious sense. Our military academies also teach cybersecurity skills as part of a curriculum that also includes an honor code that emphasizes duty, integrity and loyalty to country. As we expose cyber operators to ever-more vast amounts of sensitive information—and entrust them with some of the most destructive digital tools imaginable—we must continue to ensure that their technical skills are matched by character traits such as integrity and loyalty.
In short, what’s needed is an educational system and holistic curriculum that produces the modern equivalent of the Renaissance Man. As explained by the 16th-century Italian author Baldassare Castiglione in “The Book of the Courtier,” the Renaissance man was fluent in science, rhetoric, ethics, and the arts, and understood advances in technology in the context of politics, diplomacy, and relations between warring states. Confronted with a Sputnik moment in cyberspace, the United States needs to build a workforce grounded in ethics and fluent in technology, contextual thinking, and clear communications. Only such digital-age Renaissance men and women will be able to rise to the cyber challenges of our time.