High-Tech Woes: Milwaukee IT Experts Talk Cybersecurity

Nov 8, 2019

Cybersecurity and the need for more information technology (IT) workers who are trained in security are global concerns. And some southeastern Wisconsin universities are responding.

One person who studies cybersecurity problems is Walter Schilling, a professor in the software engineering program at the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE).

He says as more people automate their home, including devices like Internet-connected thermostats and coffee makers, some are using older and potentially vulnerable operating systems (like Windows XP or Windows 7) on their computers.

"If we have homeowners not keeping their devices up, and they're not segregating their networks following good security practices — which is very difficult for the typical consumer to do — then we're going to have problems in that world," Schilling said.

READ: With Cyberattacks On Rise, Current Cybersecurity Workforce Can't Keep Up

Schilling says it's possible security breaches at home could filter into someone's workplace computer. So, because of that and direct threats to organizations, more places of business are stepping up cybersafety training.

Where Angela Johnson works, protecting health care information and devices could be a matter of life and death. She's chief information security officer at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin. 

"For us, when you talk about lives on the line, a bad day for us is when someone dies on the table because our systems weren't protected. We just can't have it," Johnson said.

"When you talk about lives on the line, a bad day for us is when someone dies on the table because our systems weren't protected." - Angela Johnson, Children's Hospital of Wisconsin

She advocates a security method called multi-factor authentication (MFA). This method requires more than one type of independent credentials for a user to log in or conduct an online transaction. The University of Wisconsin System recently switched to MFA, and this story was written on a Duo-MFA enrolled account.

Johnson also advocates more training of employees — even on things like not clicking on suspicious links or attachments.

"You know, it's training, training, training. I will do sneak attacks on some of my doctors. They hate me for it. But, you know what? You clicked it. This could be real one day. And guess what? You have 15 minutes more training to do," Johnson said.

Some institutions, including Children's Hospital, have moved some data into cloud storage. Those are shared computing resources, owned by huge firms like Microsoft, IBM, Google, and Oracle.  Johnson says she's not afraid of taking things off of local servers and paying for use of the cloud.

"Lots of places are [afraid.] I think it depends on the application. For us, we took our main electronic health records application and moved it out onto the cloud. You do it for numerous reasons. At the hospital, we don't have endless funds, so to support the talent, to support the infrastructure, to support the health records — it's just too much," Johnson said.

With the various cybersecurity threats, do corporations still find value in big computers? Crystal Pardo, IT audit manager at Associated Bank, says there are downsides — like frequently having to manage vulnerabilities and install changes called patches. But Pardo says the technology also has its blessings.

"There's a way to analyze our data — use human-behavior analysis, user behavior, find anomalies. It definitely increases the effectiveness and efficiency of how we can be monitoring our security events and be detecting them," Pardo said.

Pardo and the other IT experts spoke Oct. 28, at a forum at MSOE's Diercks Computational Science Hall.  

Walter Schilling in the MSOE cybersecurity lab.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

Upstairs in the building, Software Engineering professor Walter Schilling teaches cyber-security. Firms say they need millions of additional employees around the globe. Schilling recently showed off a special area: the MSOE cybersecurity lab.

"You see a lot of network cables hanging around. The network in here is completely independent of everything else on campus. We are our own little castle in here," Schilling told a tour group.

He says that independence allows him to set up cybersecurity exercises, such as having students both trying to hack into the system and defend against hacks. 

All to get them ready for what may be decades of work in the secure, or perhaps compromised, world of high tech computers. 

Support is provided by Dr. Lawrence and Mrs. Hannah Goodman for Innovation reporting.

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