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Thurston: Target breach highlights the importance of cybersecurity

According to Target, hackers stole data related to 40 million credit and debit card accounts and also pilfered personal information — including the email addresses, phone numbers, home addresses and names — of as many as 70 million customers. 

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According to Target, hackers stole data related to 40 million credit and debit card accounts and also pilfered personal information — including the email addresses, phone numbers, home addresses and names — of as many as 70 million customers. 

I finally did it.

A few months after Target announced that criminals had stolen credit and debit card data from millions of customers, I decided to ditch my debit REDcard, which is tied to my bank account.

Like a lot of holiday shoppers, I had swiped my REDcard at a store between Nov. 27 and Dec. 15, when the breach occurred, so I was at risk. Fortunately, no one used my card illegally, but I didn't want to take any chances.

I had heard the stories. Such as the one about the reader whose Target card was charged $1,200 — every dollar in her bank account. Supposedly, her bank was going to reimburse her, but what was she going to do in the meantime? That was her only available cash.

I didn't want to do it, which is why I procrastinated so long. I liked my debit REDcard.

The benefits are great: 5 percent off purchases and free shipping through Target.com. It's also easy. Payments are automatically deducted from a bank account, so there's no writing a check later.

In the end, I compromised by canceling the debit card and opening a credit REDcard. It will be another bill to pay, but at least it won't leave my checking account as vulnerable to cyber thieves.

I'm hardly alone. At a lecture Monday hosted by the University of South Florida and the SunTrust Foundation, a speaker asked how many in the audience of about 250 business and university leaders had been a victim of cyber fraud or had canceled a card in light of the Target breach. Dozens raised their hands.

The event was the first in a new lecture series funded by a $1 million donation from SunTrust bank. The keynote speaker was P.W. Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of the new book Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know.

Singer said the digital age has given rise to a whole new set of challenges affecting our entire modern way of life. Perhaps no issue is more important than cybersecurity, he said, yet it remains so misunderstood, even after much-publicized data thefts such as Target's.

He blames some of the problem on lightning-fast technology. It wasn't too long ago that computers were the size of a room, not an index card. People who once relied on snail mail now send 40 trillion emails a year.

Basically, we can't keep up. Singer points to company executives who still haven't embraced the digital age. They hide behind lower-level managers who handle the computer stuff, yet when a cybersecurity problem arises, they have to make the final call.

"This has been treated as the domain for the 'it' crowd as in IT people,'' Singer said. "We need to find the 'it' crowd and expand the 'it' crowd.''

Bottom line — and I'm making a conclusion here based on Singer's comments — CEOs must be technologically savvy enough to thoroughly understand what the IT folks are talking about.

By 2017, 1 million jobs are expected to be created in the field of cybersecurity, Singer said. Of course, computer whizzes will be in high demand, but so will crime experts trained in cyber crime and psychologists who can profile cyber criminals. Having enough qualified people to take those jobs will be critical to addressing cybersecurity issues adequately, he said.

That's where USF comes in. This fall, the school is offering a master's degree in cybersecurity, the first of its kind in Florida. Students can choose from four concentrations: cyber intelligence, digital forensics, information assurance and computer security fundamentals. All classes are online and last eight weeks. Graduate certificates will also be available.

The degree is part of USF's plan to create the Florida Center for Cybersecurity, an initiative designed to position Florida as a national leader in cybersecurity. The center is included in Gov. Rick Scott's budget but must be approved by the state Legislature. The initial $7.1 million in funding would go toward establishing the center and recruiting a leader and support team.

Demand for cyber professionals is growing faster than that for other IT jobs, especially in the wake of retail breaches, which also hit Neiman Marcus and Michaels. Justifiable or not, Americans are more afraid of cyber attacks than of Iranian nuclear bombs, global warming or the rise of China, Singer said.

I won't go that far, but the fear of a criminal getting his paws on my paycheck was enough to make me change my REDcard.

Susan Thurston can be reached at sthurston@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3110.

Thurston: Target breach highlights the importance of cybersecurity 03/03/14 [Last modified: Monday, March 3, 2014 9:05pm]
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