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Dearth of Banking-Focused Information Security Education Could Be Detrimental

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With the economic situation being what it is, many in the financial services industry may find themselves looking at opportunities to advance their educations, whether to keep their jobs or to help them find a new profession after having been laid off. Ask Dr. Kevin Streff, associate professor and director of the center for information assurance with Dakota State University in Madison, S.D., what area of technology is going to be most crucial to the financial services industry in the coming years and he will tell you it’s information security.

Streff is part of a specialized computer science program that caters specifically to the needs of the financial services industry. Twenty-five years ago, DSU’s mission was changed so that it became the technology university for the region. At the same time, the credit card industry was starting to take off. Streff says the governor of South Dakota at the time wanted to woo some of these big financial services companies to the state, so it was decided that DSU would become the IT training area for the financial services industry. “Now, many card companies call South Dakota home,” says Streff. “We’ve been placing 75 percent of our graduates at these companies, like Wells Fargo and Citi.”

About seven years ago, he says an information security program was also established at the university. It is DSU’s fastest growing IT major. Streff explains this is not just one class in infosec. Rather, it’s an in-depth program designed to give students a better understanding of the full breadth of information security requirements at financial institutions and other companies.

DSU offers a BA in computer network security. Streff says a popular combination tends to be the computer network security major coupled with a minor in digital forensics. He notes that most of the students in this program go on to work or financial services companies. Plus, students are exposed on a regular basis to the latest in financial services regulation and guidance on security and data management. Required reading materials in the FS-focused program include handbooks from the FDIC and FFIEC.

And these programs are not just about educating students in straight IT. Streff says DSU is well aware of the importance banks are placing on business/IT alignment. The school has classes that also cover the managerial aspects of working in IT.

“The qualities a bank seeks in our graduates really depends on the role,” he says. “If the job is really tech-specific, like network security, that’s one kind of person. If the employer wants a business continuity person, then that requires slightly less technology emphasis and more expertise in managerial skills and communication skills so that he can liaise with other departments in the company. IT/business alignment is something we pay attention to. You have to do this.”

For example, at the graduate level, DSU has an MA program in information assurance. “This consists of 12 courses on security that range from the technology aspects to the managerial aspects. There is also an MA specialization in financial services security. That’s why the big financial services companies come calling for those folks.”

Streff also notes the MA program in financial services security is available to professionals as a distance learning program. He says this is important to expanding this field as there is a great need for people with security know-how in banking. “We have bankers in the distance MA program in states as far away as California and Colorado. We tape every class, there are interactive technology components they can use, and we virtualize the labs so they can access what they need.”

DSU’s efforts to create an information security program specialty in financial services have not gone unnoticed. The school has been designed a center for academic excellence in information assurance by the Department of Homeland Security and the National Security Agency. It is also where the National Center for the Protection of the Financial Infrastructure program is based. This is a research center dedicated to researching known problems in the financial services space based on an agenda set by the Dept. of Treasury. Several financial institutions are supporting the center, along with the FDIC, Federal Reserve and DHS.

Streff cannot emphasize enough the importance of educating future infosec professionals, especially for financial institutions. Unfortunately, he also says computer science programs like the one at DSU are extremely rare. “The fact that there aren’t many programs in this area is alarming,” Streff comments. “The financial services sector asks where it is going to get trained information security professionals in the future. DSU can’t provide all of them. Universities in different regions of the country need to adopt our model.”

Of the approximately 800 computer science students at DSU, Streff says about 150 of them are in the computer network security BA program and most of them find employment with financial services companies, both local and in other parts of the country.

It’s not just the very largest banks that seek graduates from DSU’s infosec program, but also insurance companies, credit unions, small and midsize banks, and accounting firms, according to Streff. This is probably a good thing as the financial crisis has put somewhat of a damper on hiring at the very biggest financial institutions, he notes. “I think this is mostly true of the Big 19 banks with all the lay offs and mergers we’re seeing,” he explains. “But this is just a small piece of the financial services marketplace. There are also 10,000 credit unions, 8,000 community banks, plus accounting firms, tax prep firms and other companies. We’re actually seeing more demand [for DSU graduates] from small and midsize companies now.”

Even with the economic crisis, applications to the program are up, claims Streff. This doesn’t surprise him, given the turmoil in the job market. “We’re seeing lots of developers being laid off and they’re looking for the next big thing. They sense it’s security. There is a shortage of professionals to meet the pressing needs here,” he says. “Universities should establish [computer science] programs focused on niches like financial services so people can have that depth of understanding.”

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