More than a year into her role as head of Australia's top-level Australian Centre for Cyber Security (ACCS), Dr Jill Slay is driving information-security research and skills-building investments and is encouraged by the strong buy-in from government and industry – but admits even her organisation isn't immune from the skills deficit that is plaguing the private sector.
“I have the same problems as everyone else” in getting enough skilled staff, Slay told CSO Australia ahead of her presentation at this week's Association & Communications Events (ACE) Technology In Government conference in Canberra.
“We don't actually have a lot of academics in this country with practical skills,” she explained, “and in terms of national security we're also taking about somebody who is needing security clearance. We've had a lot of postdocs and PhD students, but they are highly employable and this makes it hard for me to get and keep staff just like any other company.”
Those researchers who have joined the ACCS, however, are enjoying an increasingly robust academic environment in which the 52-strong research organisation has been rapidly expanding its profile within the government sector since its official launch at the end of last year.
“There's a lot of willingness to become our customers,” she said.
Its reputation as a centre of excellence has led to partnerships with organisations such as the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) – where ACCS staff deliver cybersecurity training to each and every incoming recruit – as well as customised training for government departments and other parties.
“We're working with industry and government to try to take away some of the training burden from industry,” she said, noting that despite her academic background – Slay is a UNSW Canberra professor, ISC2 board member and Order of Australia recipient who is well-recognised for her research work in cybersecurity related issues – she is an engineer at heart and is therefore “a little more pragmatic”.
“I want to do something that fixes the problems now,” she said. “A lot of work in cybersecurity has been around theoretical issues, and people get promoted in academia on them but they often don't deal with the real problems that industry and government face.”
“I'm trying to create an environment where people can have a proper academic career, but where we can actually solve some of those problems.”
Links between ACCS and UNSW have created new academic opportunities through the establishment of Master's-level Cyber Security degrees in technical, digital forensics, and operations areas. Next year, these courses – which include units in network operations, identity and access management, wireless and mobile security, cryptography and more – will be supplemented by a coming Master of Cyber Security Diplomacy that deals with many of the higher-level geopolitical issues surrounding today's cybersecurity climate.
Even as the research element of her work continues to expand, practical cybersecurity issues will be a key focus for Slay going forward.
“I'm trying to influence at the basic practical, operational level but also at the higher-thinking conceptual level,” she said. “But I'm not interested in concepts that are so abstract that I can't see the application of them.”
The need to build out high-level information-security skills has become a common theme amongst industry figures of late, with Cisco Systems recently issuing a high-profile response to the ACSC's first annual review and the federal government's Digital Transformation Office (DTO) mandating a significant formalisation of information-security policies as part of a compliance program that will see the delivery of formal digital transition plans next month.
Private industry and public organisations have loudly joined the call for investment in cybersecurity skills, with skills shortages flagged and Dimension Data previously flagging the needfor stronger security capabilities as a priority for 2015 and INTERPOL warning that even regular police needed to be well-trained in cybercrime forensics practices.