The modern shootout between good and evil is happening on a new battlefield.
It's the land of cybersecurity, a high-tech world that matters to anyone who has had his identity stolen, had her Facebook hacked, unwittingly emailed a weird virus to 500 of his closest friends.
Virtually every company needs IT professionals to wear the so-called white hat and head off havoc-wreaking hackers. But demand for workers has outpaced the training and education they need.
Now Florida wants in. State university leaders have spent months making ambitious plans for the Florida Center for Cybersecurity, a statewide effort that would be led by the University of South Florida in Tampa. Sensing a fertile ground for jobs, the 2013 Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott requested a plan and a proposed budget for the center by Dec. 1.
Florida's Board of Governors will vote on the proposal at a meeting in Miami this week. It includes a request that the Legislature fund, in phases, a $16 million program, as well as a $30 million building in Tampa to house top-secret research. USF has offered to contribute millions as well, and seek private funding.
People behind the project call it a worthy taxpayer investment toward major goals — creating high-paying jobs, keeping students in state, winning grants, bringing start-ups to Florida, building military defenses.
Becoming "The Cyber State."
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Hackers aren't necessarily teenagers in basements, not anymore. They're sophisticated. They're all over the world, looking for flaws in software and selling them to people who can profit from your Social Security number, your credit card information. Just like in the wild west, the term for the warriors is "white hatter" for good guy, "black hatter" for bad guy.
"There's a huge underground market," said USF student Luke Hritsko, president of the school's Whitehatters Computer Security Club. "Most of the black hatters' motive is to make a lot of money. And you can make a lot of money."
Security breaches aren't always sinister. They can happen with human error or carelessness — think, someone dropping a thumb drive of sensitive information in a parking lot.
Cyber attacks reported by federal agencies have grown almost 800 percent in six years, according to the Goldgaber Research Group. Twitter and Facebook have been hacked. So have the Washington Post and the New York Times. Nissan. Microsoft. Apple. At software company Adobe, hackers recently got personal information from 2.9 million customers.
It's not just private enterprises. Federal agencies reported about 50,000 cyber attacks in 2012. President Barack Obama this year signed an executive order with policies to strengthen security. Even the embattled Obamacare website has been the target of repeated cyber attacks.
"It's a cat and mouse game," said Brian Murphy, CEO of ReliaQuest, a tech security consulting firm based in Tampa. "Every time we try to figure out how to stop something, they lob something else over the fence. … It's not a matter of if you're going to get breached or if there's going to be a security issue in your company. It's a matter of when."
The odds lead to job opportunities. Cybersecurity job postings grew more than 70 percent in five years, according to a study from Burning Glass Technologies — that's 3.5 times faster than all computer jobs and 12 times faster than the labor market as a whole. And the jobs are good. The median salary for Florida's information security analysts last year was more than $74,000.
"The jobs are definitely there," said Andy Zolper, chief IT security officer at Raymond James. "We have increased about 20 percent over the last three years, and we'll be adding more roles over time."
Zolper says about 12 percent of his current staff are graduates of USF, and he has lent his ideas to the new cybersecurity endeavor there. Florida business leaders including the president of the Florida High Tech Corridor and CEOs of Jabil and Tech Data have written Scott in support of the program.
"Tech Data wants to hire more talented Florida graduates with cybersecurity training to help us fortify our defenses," wrote Tech Data CEO Robert Dutkowsky. "However, we are not finding enough graduates with the necessary skills."
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Luke Hritsko is a computer science senior at USF. But most of what he knows of computer security, he learned through the Whitehatters club. They meet every week to talk shop and play security games. They compete around the country.
"A lot of it is self-taught," said Hritsko, 22. "And a lot of the hacker culture, hacker community, is about teaching each other."
Formal education options exist, but many are piecemeal. The University of West Florida, the Florida Institute of Technology and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University are among Florida schools with some offerings. Florida State University has a Center for Security and Assurance in Information Technology. And USF already has an Institute for Secure and Innovative Computing.
The new center would bring it all together, project leaders say. USF would offer a master's degree in cybersecurity, as well as certificates in subjects such as cyberbehavior, cyberbullying and cybercrime.
"We think we're remarkably well-positioned to serve as the statewide hub, if you will," said USF provost Ralph Wilcox. "The one-stop shop for cybersecurity workforce development, training and education."
Students and faculty from all over could train and do research there, he said. IT professionals from around the country could come for certifications. Tampa is central to big businesses, plus MacDill Air Force Base. And USF is home to a high number of student veterans.
"They've got a lot of good intel background," said Sri Sridharan, managing director of the initiative. "It would be fantastic to put them through a certification process, and they can go right back into the workforce."
Cybersecurity takes creativity and passion, Sridharan said. He hopes to draw students from all walks of life — psychology, forensics, policy, law, as well as white hatters like Hritsko.
Hritsko might consider USF's master's degree in cybersecurity, he said, but he's already interning at a tech company in California. And he was focused on an upcoming trip to New York with the Whitehatters to compete in finals of a cyber security contest.
It was Cyber Security Awareness Week.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3394.