UNCW Looks To The Ocean For Cybersecurity Specialization

By Audrey Elsberry, posted Mar 11, 2024
Professor Ulku Clark (right) assists a student in the Center for Cyber Defense Education at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Janowski/UNCW)
Wilmington’s ocean access is often marketed as an economic asset, but it could also pose a security risk. 

After President Joe Biden signed an executive order last month pledging to strengthen the cybersecurity of the nation’s maritime ports, the University of North Carolina Wilmington also plans to add resources to a maritime cybersecurity program. 

Established in 2018, UNCW’s Center for Cyber Defense Education is already one of the most robust cybersecurity programs in the state, with eight offerings including a cybersecurity major, minor, concentration and graduate certificate. The College of Science and Engineering is adding a maritime cybersecurity concentration to existing computer science and cybersecurity programs, said the college’s dean, Ron Vetter. 

“That could be something that we can really make a name for ourselves,” Vetter said, “especially since we have the Center for Marine Science already here.”

The university’s administration has a vested interest in cyberdefense due to the shortage of cybersecurity professionals. Maritime cyberdefense can be used to strengthen the security around the Chinese-manufactured cranes transporting cargo from ships to land, which is the focus of last month’s executive order.

Cyberdefense professor Ulku Clark said there are only a handful of groups focused on maritime cybersecurity in the country. She and other university professors in the program are glad the federal government is also taking an interest in boosting maritime cybersecurity. 

Clark’s team has been working on maritime security-related topics in the past couple of years, trying to establish a maritime research center at UNCW. This semester, the school is offering classes in maritime transportation security and industrial security to students interested in specializing in maritime cybersecurity.

Clark said the transportation sector is huge. The nation’s port system is responsible for 90% of the goods that come in and out of the country, so security at those gateways is essential. 

Faculty from multiple disciplines are planning to collaborate on the maritime cybersecurity program. Clark reached out to professors who teach public and international affairs, who teach about maritime piracy, and ocean and earth sciences and who work with underwater sensors to join her in the new programming. 

Vetter said the UNCW administration is looking to put resources behind specific “research hubs,” and his proposal is centered around maritime cybersecurity. 

“Build on your strengths and your location,” Vetter said. “So I think we’re going to try to turn this into a research hub where it’ll be an area of intense research activity and probably additional faculty hires over the next three to five years.”

Readers can find a deeper dive into the cybersecurity workforce shortage in the next issue of the Greater Wilmington Business Journal, which is online and in print March 15. 
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