CYBER CORPS trains to protect the nation against cyber terrorism

Wednesday, August 29th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TULSA, Okla. (AP) _ They are unlikely superheroes.

One is the mother of three. Another used to tour in a rock band. A third, at 63, could be thinking retirement instead of training to defend the nation against cyber terrorism.

But nine men and women who began classes Aug. 20 at the University of Tulsa are deemed an elite force as members of the first U.S. ``cyber corps.''

``I describe it as `The Right Stuff,' '' said their leader, computer science professor Sujeet Shenoi. ``It's a new frontier. It's getting involved for our country. To serve, protect and defend.''

Tulsa's program is one of six nationwide funded by the National Science Foundation to train a group of experts to protect the country from computer hackers and terrorists.

``They will be at the forefront of a new cadre of computer security and information assurance professionals,'' National Science Foundation Director Rita Colwell said last spring in announcing awards to Tulsa, Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Idaho, Iowa State, Purdue and the Naval Postgraduate School.

Roughly 200 people nationwide are expected to go through the program in the next two to three years. All of them agree to work for the government for at least two years after receiving their degrees.

Julie Evans, a 42-year-old Web programmer and mother of three, saw a good deal and signed up. She looks forward to government benefits and the thrill of tracking down computer invaders.

``When there's a worm out there that could disrupt a system, I'd like to be able to stop it,'' said Evans, who pursued a bachelor's degree for 21 years while raising her family.

Rick Ayers had never considered working for the government.

He started out as an aspiring junior golfer and later toured the West as lead guitarist for a rock band called Apache Rain. Most recently he landed at a market research company doing computer work.

While he prefers the idea of a job at Microsoft, he couldn't resist the government's offer.

``I'm really into the whole security thing,'' said the 30-year-old who still wears long rocker hair. ``I'm fascinated by that.''

Shenoi describes Tulsa's program as a mix of computer security and e-commerce classes, research in computer forensics and community service projects designed to take computer ethics into public school classrooms.

Hackers and cyber terrorists have the potential to shut down power grids, disable phone systems, disrupt the delivery of essential medical supplies, he warns. He points to his own discovery Monday that someone has been using his telephone credit card number to make calls in Europe.

He's certain a cyber thief is to blame.

``Sometimes I don't sleep well because I wonder what can happen,'' Shenoi said. ``We need more people.''

He chooses his students carefully. He fears the student who might one day side with the enemy. One reason he pushes them to participate in community projects, like a recent home building mission in Guatemala, is because ``people who do those things can't be bad.''

Shenoi's goal is to make the undergraduate and graduate students who leave the program the leaders in a battle he describes as evil versus good.

His students chuckle at the idea of themselves as the crime-fighting elite.

``I don't see us all driving up in black suits,'' said Brian McFarland, a 21-year-old who plays on the university's soccer team.

Howard Barnes' friends and family wondered what he was doing signing up for such a mission at age 63.

``It's a natural outgrowth of my career,'' said Barnes, who was working as a software engineer for Cessna Aircraft Co. when he saw an article on the Internet about the cyber corps. He and his wife of 44 years packed up their house in Wichita, Kan., and moved to a Tulsa apartment.

Barnes envisions one day working as a consultant on computer security. But he also is driven by patriotism to serve his country.

``Someone's got to do it,'' he said. ``If not me, who? We can't allow it to be attacked from outside.''