NMDSI turns spotlight on cybersecurity and data science for month of October

Johnny Pak, Communications Lead

Oct 25, 2021

Pumpkins and costumes may be what many people associate the month of October with, but at the Northwestern Mutual Data Science Institute (NMDSI), the focus is on cybersecurity awareness.

In October 2004, the National Cyber Security Alliance and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) launched an initiative to help Americans stay safer and be more secure online. Since then, the cyberthreats have evolved and many participants have embraced Cybersecurity Awareness Month and adopted a shared responsibility theme so everyone can participate in securing digital assets.

Data science is at the root of the NMDSI. It is one of the primary drivers in the partnership that was established in June 2018 between Northwestern Mutual, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM), and Marquette University. Our vision is to be a world-class institute that transforms our world through the power of data science.

At its core, data science can be described as the craft of studying, processing, and manipulating large sets of numbers to gain valuable insights. Cybersecurity is the “art of protecting networks, devices, and data from unauthorized access to criminal use and the practice of ensuring confidentiality, integrity, and availability of information,” according to the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA).

How They Are Connected

The connection between data science and cybersecurity involves the analysis of logged data and the efforts in preventing and protecting against cyberattacks.

Data is being collected at unprecedented rates and scopes at universities, corporations, and beyond. The real challenge is how to effectively manage, analyze, and protect all that information. “A strong understanding of an organization’s data allows for a cybersecurity program to architect technology and controls suited to protecting its most critical assets. Additionally, data is utilized to aid in the initial identification of critical assets,” said Northwestern Mutual’s Vice President of Enterprise Cybersecurity Lisa Brzycki.

A common technique that’s growing in the world of cybersecurity and data science is user and event behavior analysis according to Tom Kaczmarek, Marquette University’s Director of Center for Cybersecurity Awareness and Cyber Defense. “Computer systems will initially ingest logged data so it can establish a pattern of what’s considered normal use. After the pattern has been recognized through machine learning techniques, they analyze the day-to-day log information and flag anything usual. If there’s an anomaly, then it will trigger an investigation,” said Kaczmarek.

For UWM, the university relies on the techniques from data science to transform what is gathered into something useful and intelligible. Their firewalls and log monitoring systems use data science techniques to protect their environment. AI is also utilized for threat detection.

Common Attacks and Trends

Some of the most common cybersecurity attacks are phishing, ransomware, and Denial of Service (DoS).

Phishing is when attackers disguise themselves as a trusted entity in hopes of duping the victim into opening an email, instant message, or text message. Ransomware is a type of malicious software designed to block access to a computer system until a sum of money is paid. A DoS attack is intended to shut down a machine or network and prevents legitimate users from accessing information from their devices or network resources.

“With many of these attacks, they are being utilized as an extortion attack, rather than a data attack,” said Brzycki.

Recently, phishing and ransomware attacks have been on the rise where victims can range from corporations down to college students.

While the school does its best to capture phishing attempts, “students can click on the wrong things and get scammed. They can get emails from fake alumni that claims to be rich and wants to help by offering to pay them for work,” said Kaczmarek.

“Ransomware continues to pose a formidable challenge as attackers seek to monetize their data attacks. We are seeing heightened sensitivity in governance, national and global, to information security vulnerability and its implications. A worldwide effort is underway to engage this topic, to implement standards, and to hold bad actors accountable,” said University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee CIO Robert Beck.

Efforts Against Cyberattacks Now and Later

Northwestern Mutual continues to foster a culture of security across its enterprise. To accomplish this, the company maintains dedicated teams focused on educating employees about the importance of cybersecurity through phishing drills, frequent internal communications, and engaging training content. Additionally, Northwestern Mutual continues to engage with industry partners, law enforcement, and government regulators to ensure that we are addressing the evolving threat landscape.

At Marquette, the school will continue their work that led to their designation as a center of Academic Excellent in Cyber Defense Education by the Department of Homeland Security and the National Security Agency in 2017. Marquette achieved this standard by continuing to inform its students and faculty of best practices to protect themselves against cyberattacks. The school currently teaches the user and behavior analysis technique in classes and other activities using a Splunk product called User Behavior Analysis. Marquette is also currently offering a professional a Master of Science degree with a focus on cybersecurity.

For UWM, the university has worked assiduously to comply with numerous UW System policies. From a user perspective, the school is focusing its efforts on user education and outreach. Behind the scenes, UWM devotes significant effort to many areas including protection of its email system, the universal campus deployment of multifactor authentication, the addition of controls to remote access, and the assurance of robust data backups and associated testing.

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