University of Idaho faculty member leads team that lands state award for cybersecurity project

A team led by University of Idaho faculty member Michael Haney recently received a $2.1M award from the Higher Education Research Council-Idaho Global Entrepreneurial Mission (HERC-IGEM) for a project that calls for creating an immersive training environment for cybersecurity students statewide.   

The project, Reconfigurable Attack-Defend Instructional Computing Laboratory (RADICL) at the University of Idaho’s Idaho Falls Center for Higher Education, will allow students at any Idaho university to access what will eventually be a hybrid physical/virtual environment through the Idaho Regional Optical Network, a high-speed optical network that connects higher education institutions, healthcare organizations, government agencies and not-for-profit organizations throughout the state.   

It expands on the RADICL facility on the University of Idaho’s main campus in Moscow, which provides hands-on teaching and research in the areas of information assurance, cyber-defense and modern computing platforms and networks. The new effort will expand to cyber-physical systems and operations technology for critical infrastructure.  

The immersive environment created by the project would mimic real-world activity on the internet – “things you couldn’t do in a classroom,” said Haney, associate professor of Computer Science for the University of Idaho and a cybersecurity researcher at Idaho National Laboratory.  

“I look at this like a firing range for the military,” he said. “You can teach them about these issues, but we need to have them belly crawl through the mud with barbed wire. We want a live firing range so we can get students prepared for the kinds of attacks they are going to face in the real world.”  

Among the adversarial activities that will be addressed are malware, ransomware and “advanced persistent threat agents,” Haney said, adding that the plan is to create an environment that is “reconfigurable, redeployable and replayable.”   

“In short, we intend to create an Adversary-as-a-Service offering with real-world physical systems and realistic simulated internet-scale cyber-attacks,” he said.   

Led by Haney, the project includes University of Idaho researchers R.A. Borrelli, Dakota Roberson and Constantinos Kolias, and Idaho State University researchers Benjamin Lampe, Sean McBride and Ryan Lind.    

The HERC-IGEM program, which is designed to stimulate competitive research at Idaho’s higher education institutions, will fund the project for three years at $693K annually.  Projects selected for funding must be in alignment with the statewide higher education research strategic plan,” according to the HERC-IGEM website. Haney’s project aligns with the plan to boost cybersecurity education at the state’s universities and colleges through a private fiber optic network that connects classrooms and research laboratories on all of Idaho’s public higher education institutions.  

The goal, Haney said, is to eventually incorporate CAES and INL’s Collaborative Computing Center and Cybercore into the plan. At CAES, Haney envisions a physical lab that ties into an existing simulator in the Applied Visualization Laboratory, with a focus on cybersecurity for the nuclear industry or other energy sources.  

“This will create hands-on, practical education,” he said.