Deneen Hernandez

When Deneen Hernandez discusses cyber security with her students, she stresses that the field doesn’t have to be jargon-filled or dull. The FBI forensic examiner and adjunct cyber security professor at UMUC points to the reported FBI investigation into allegations that the St. Louis Cardinals hacked into an internal Houston Astros network to steal players’ information.

Perhaps, Hernandez tells students, their coursework can prepare them to work as a cyber security expert in sports. “It’s big stuff,” she said, “but it doesn’t have to be just military or government.”

Hernandez, who teaches digital analysis, cyber security, and digital forensics at UMUC, is an enrolled member of the Seneca Nation of Indians from the Cattaraugus Reservation in Western New York. She has served in law enforcement for about three decades. At the FBI, Hernandez works in the laboratory division’s cryptanalysis and racketeering records unit in Quantico, Virginia. And she has specialized in illicit gambling; a good bit of it occurs in Internet cafes.

She shares that experience—everything from search warrants to affidavits—with her students. She also shares her work as an expert witness. Hernandez views much of that as teaching, too. “It’s teaching others that [cyber security] is not as hard as it seems. Here’s what’s happening. Here are the results. And here’s how I can prove it,” she said.

So, last June, when a student approached Hernandez and asked if she would serve as coach for UMUC’s team in the National Cyber League, known as the NCL, she agreed.

The NCL, which was founded in May 2011, provides collegiate students with ongoing virtual cyber security skills training in an individual and team competitive-sports environment. In October, several UMUC students competed in the preseason kickoff to the 2015 NCL fall season games, “almost like in the NFL,” Hernandez said.

The competition “enables a student to validate, to further develop, and to further enhance their cyber security skills,” she added. During competitions, students are given challenges that they must investigate, using specific tools, to identify—and solve—active problems or threats. “There’s also an event where you actually capture the flag, similar to a type of war game,” Hernandez said.

Students log in remotely to access the virtual competitions and apply the competencies they’ve developed through their coursework and honed through NCL and other lab exercises. They also gain experience with virtual networks.

“You have a computer inside of a computer, which is very common today,” said Hernandez, who cited the example of working on a Mac that runs a Windows-based operating system. “Your computer needs to be able to talk to other computers that you’re trying to diagnose,” she said. “There’s a virtual element to it.”

In addition to cyber security skills, the competition also develops and validates ethical hacking knowledge and skills, according to Hernandez.

More broadly, she said she sees new ads every day for jobs in the growing cyber security field. “You’re going to safeguard the assets of a corporation, be it intellectual property or someone’s actual physical property. You’re going to maintain people’s comfort level in doing business with you,” Hernandez said.

We do business on our phones, on our tablets, on our computers, and on gaming systems, she added. “Those gaming systems are actually computers. They’re avenues to access people’s information.”

As long as people bank, shop, and store their personal information online, there will be a need for keeping those platforms secure.