By Steve Richards, CIO, Dean of Business and Information Technology, Alexandria Technical and Community College

You may have read or heard about it last year in the Echo Press: A local business fell victim to a cyber attack when its technology network was infiltrated by ransomware, a kind of computer virus that blocks access to online data and demands payment to release the system back to its owner. The incident took the business offline for a week and was extremely costly to repair.

More recently, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz announced on May 31, 2020, that the state’s computer networks were repeatedly targeted by cyber attacks aimed at knocking government services offline.

These are just two of an estimated 80,000 cyberattacks that occur daily against individuals, businesses and entire nations around the world. In an age when everything from wristwatches to kitchen appliances are becoming connected to the Internet, the opportunities for cyber criminals to disrupt our lives and livelihoods grows as quickly as the pace of technological innovation. By 2021, the annual cost of cybercrime is expected to top $6 trillion, according to Cybercrime magazine.

With no individual or organization immune to such attacks, how can we protect our personal information and business assets? Awareness and preparation are key. Working in consultation with regional business and manufacturing interests as well as representatives from area schools and institutions of higher learning, Alexandria Technical and Community College has sharpened its focus on producing IT professionals ready to confront the rapidly evolving challenges of cyber security.

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With an eye to fostering interest in this growing field, ATCC partnered with the Air Force Academy to offer a virtual cyber camp for teens this summer. Participants were introduced to concepts such as cyber ethics, online safety and cyber threats. The camp is just one of several initiatives ATCC is pursuing with the military and industry to create programming that meets the ever-growing need for trained cybersecurity professionals. Next summer, ATCC will offer a residential week-long camp through the National Science Foundation and National Security Agency.

Alex Tech’s new Cybersecurity certificate program, with courses offered entirely online, is designed to give businesses access to training for existing IT staff and gives individuals a skills-rich entry point into an in-demand career. The 30-credit curriculum is geared around industry standards and provides a foundation for the applied associate of science degree in Cybersecurity, Virtualization and Networking. ATCC has committed over a quarter million dollars in equipment and resources to ensure students develop both theoretical and practical mastery of the field.

Unfortunately, no amount of preparation can completely prevent cybercrime. But we can minimize our risk and limit the damages by making cybersecurity a priority in our businesses and homes. When it comes to technology, there is no putting the genie back in the bottle. As an FBI agent who spoke at Alex Tech’s West Central Technology Conference warned, “We’re not going to unplug the internet. The only road is forward, and we need to figure out how to work together to secure that road.” Alexandria Technical and Community College is proud to be part of creating solutions to the challenges we all face.