The commander of national cyber operations delivered a blunt assessment of threats against the United States while making a patriotic call for the next generation of digital specialists to join the government’s battle against hackers.
“You can pull out any media outlet that you like and on any day you’re going to find (reporting about) something (online that has) been penetrated, hacked, stolen, manipulated,” Adm. Michael S. Rogers, the commander of U.S. Cyber Command and the director of the National Security Agency since 2014, told an engaged audience at the Bronco Student Center on Feb. 15.
“One of my challenges is being responsible for defending networks in the U.S. government and providing capability to defend portions of the networks in the private sector,” he said.
The federal government has designated 16 critical infrastructure sectors, including aviation, water, finance, transportation and energy. Those segments fall under the NSA’s protective umbrella.
“If those segments were significantly compromised or damaged, this would have significant implications for our nation’s security,” said Rogers, a U.S Navy officer for 35 years. “Right now, we’re just reacting. At times I feel like a catcher sitting there with a mitt waiting for the pitch. It is incredibly frustrating. When I look at the future, we have to change the dynamic.”
Reminiscent of Uncle Sam recruitment posters from a bygone era, Rogers’ talk had a clear objective: To inspire the next wave of cyber warriors in the ongoing struggle.
Cal Poly Pomona’s reputation in cybersecurity is growing as student teams have consistently beaten squads from universities such as Stanford and UC Berkeley in cyber competitions. A Cal Poly Pomona team earned a coveted spot at the 2016 National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition. In addition, the university has been designated as a National Center of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance/Cyber Defense Education by the NSA and the Department of Homeland Security.
“I’m trying to build the human capital of the future in the cyber arena. To do that, we need great men and women,” said Rogers. “Quite frankly, you are the potential human capital for us for the future. I want to encourage those of you who are interested in a career in cybersecurity to maintain that commitment.
“One of the things I love about this university is that you’re a diverse place. I want to lead workforces that are diverse. I don’t want a workforce that just looks like me or has my background. I want a workforce that reflects a wide range of experiences and a wide range of perspectives because that leads to better outcomes. We’ll make better decisions, we’ll have a wider range of considerations to make those decisions and we’ll be a stronger organization,” Rogers said.
While cybersecurity is a core mission of both Cyber Command and the NSA, the breakdowns of those organizations are vastly different. Cyber Command is composed of 80 percent military personnel and 20 percent civilian workers, while the NSA’s ratio is about 60 percent civilian workers and 40 percent military personnel.
In addition to hiring graduates with computer science and computer information systems degrees, Rogers said that mathematicians, electrical engineers and linguists also are in demand at the NSA.
“We’re one of the few organizations that thinks math is hot and sexy,” Rogers said to a burst of laughter. “We love language. It’s one of the ways we help to understand what’s going in the world around us.”
Nate Hom, a junior majoring in computer information systems, attended the event to learn about the role of the NSA and his career prospects. Hom helped build a scale model of a water-treatment plant for last year’s Passcode cybersecurity competition.
“I’m glad Adm. Rogers sees the potential talent Cal Poly Pomona can contribute to this industry. It’s impressive that he wanted to take the time and engage with us,” Hom said. “This conversation helped confirm my choice of major and revalidated the NSA and the U.S. Cyber Command as potential employers after graduation.”
While Rogers’ appearance was a draw for computer science and computer information systems majors, other students were attracted to the event because a high-ranking figure who has been in the national headlines was on campus.
“I was surprised that he was very transparent about policy and mindset moving forward,” said Koyo Takahashi, a senior majoring in international marketing. “He was very sincere and very humble about what the NSA does.”
That assessment about transparency was echoed by another member of the audience, which totaled more than 150.
“Coming into this, I was expecting a lot of non-answers to some of the questions,” said Tim Heselton, a junior majoring in finance, real estate and law. “Being able to clear up the reasons behind a lot their actions was very informational and a lot more of that information should be expressed to the public.”
One of the underlying messages that Rogers emphasized is that the Constitution is the bedrock for actions at the NSA.
“Our strength as a nation, at its heart, is that the state will not use its power or capabilities to trample the rights of its citizens. The Fourth Amendment doesn’t say illegal searches. It says unreasonable searches,” Rogers said. “Our job at the NSA is to ensure that we comply with the law. We’re not going to violate the law in the name of security. We cannot do that. We’re not going down that road.”