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International tensions renew emphasis on online security

Students work to keep UF's online information safe.
Members of the University of Florida's InfoSec team learn the importance of cybersecurity. (WUFT News/Ashley Hearn)

Nearly 6,000 miles away, war rages on. While a sea separates the United States from the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, cyberwarfare capabilities transcend physical distance. Russian-tied hackers have demonstrated their capability to cause significant financial losses and outages to other countries’ infrastructures and organizations, like with the hacking of the Ukraine power gridin 2015. As the U.S. sides with Ukraine, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) wants organizations across the nation to prioritize its cyber awareness as a precaution, according to its announcement Shields Up. After Nirav Shah’s three decades of consulting on computer systems, he calls the rise of online security risks an ever-increasing trend as more people rely on technology. The owner and operator of C.R.A.S.H. Technicians, a Gainesville-based IT company, predicts the ongoing growth of cybercrime. “Everything is technology-related now, so it’s just going to continue to get worse,” Shah said. “There’s always going to be more people that are trying to, essentially, see what they can do to get around and in people’s systems.” To combat this, cyber hygiene programs are currently featured, and often mandatory, in Florida education systems. Kelly Moore, the library specialist at Littlewood Elementary School, administers the online training program selected by Alachua County Public School’s with hope that all faculty take the time to complete it. She believes individual responsibility is key to prevention.

“Our entire world is interconnected through our technology resources,” Moore said. “We can see right now that one country can take a very aggressive stand and do very big damage to our ability to communicate and use our technology if we aren’t careful.” This highlights the importance of taking cyber safeguards, not only on a global and national scale, but down to every individual using technology today. ACPS faculty are now eligible for a $1,000 bonus if they complete both mental health and online security training. This incentive is made possible by the record $10.5 million salary package agreed upon by ACPS and the Alachua County Education Program.  “I think by attaching an incentive to it, it really proves to all our employees and highlights that this is a serious issue, and they are willing to put actual money behind it,” Moore said. Cybersecurity is a broad field, which John Smith, a data communication specialist for Alachua County Public Schools (ACPS), said is becoming increasingly important to address.  “I think the best way to start is to actually start with getting people to understand that cybersecurity doesn’t require you to have a huge knowledge of computer systems,” Smith said. “All it is, is knowledge to help you understand how to be safe while you’re doing your everyday things while you’re online.” Smith was one person who helped narrow the topic of cybersecurity into the subtopics of phishing, ransomware and password protection for the ACPS training. Of all these threats, the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, IC3, has received the most complaints about phishing over the past three years, according to annual reports. The goal of this cybercrime is to obtain a user’s personal information by tricking them into divulging it. This is typically done through realistic emails, text messages and promotions that prompt urgent action.

Some common phishing scams include offering links to deals, asking for reverification of log-in credentials and enticing attachments. The progression of phishing techniques now closely mirrors real messages, which is why Zlata Itkin said a careful eye is key. Itkin spends most of her academic and free time around technology as a computer science major and the president of the University of Florida’s InfoSec Team, UFSIT. Yet she, too, almost fell for a phishing scam, which she calls the easiest trick in the book. 

Once a user compromises their information, the impact has the potential to reach far beyond their own data.  “If your account can be taken advantage of then, maybe, an account higher up could also be taken advantage of from that point,” Itkin said. “That’s the individual connection—that you’re actually, technically, a part of a big organization, so everything counts.” A recent UF campus-wide statement from Elias Eldayrie, the vice president and chief information officer for UF Information Technology, stressed the safety of the university requires a collective effort.  “A cybercriminal only has to be right once,” Eldayrie said in an email interview. “We have to be right every time.”

Ashley is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing