By Amber Kennedy

Old Dominion University School of Cybersecurity students can soon join a statewide coalition aiming to protect infrastructure to guarantee fair and secure elections.

ODU is one of six Virginia universities participating in the new Virginia Cyber Navigator Internship Program (VA-CNIP), educating and preparing future cybersecurity professionals on the state elections system and the infrastructure used by Virginia's localities. Hongyi Wu, director of the School of Cybersecurity, will service as principal investigator for ODU.

The program is funded through a $3 million multi-year grant and led by the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science, with participation from ODU, George Mason University, Norfolk State University, Virginia Commonwealth University and Virginia Tech. The grant came from the National Centers of Academic Excellence in Cybersecurity, a program within the National Security Agency.

Students can apply to participate in the VA-CNIP, which is funded to support five ODU students. The program will require a new course offered this semester, followed by participation in a multi-day boot camp at U.Va. to prepare for internships. By summer, students will be ready to embed with Virginia localities to assess their election security.

The course combines basic training in principles of cybersecurity with a history of Virginia's elections systems and how they operate today. The interdisciplinary approach will help students consider the many security issues related to elections, from safeguarding the process itself to protecting the personal information of voters. Students will also learn about the dangers of misinformation and disinformation campaigns, including on social media, to persuade voters to believe elections may have been compromised.

"I hope that through this project, we will learn about the elections system, how it works, what are the possible vulnerabilities and what we can do to keep it secure," Wu said. "There's no perfect and secure system, period. Part of the goal is to educate our students to understand that."

In fall 2022, the student interns will reconvene at U.Va. to share lessons learned from their work across the state. From their feedback, the program will be refined and offered again in spring 2023.

Students who participate will apply classroom lessons to a real-world system with important implications to society at large, Wu said. The program aligns with the School of Cybersecurity's interdisciplinary approach, which combines engineering, human psychology, computer science, sociology and criminal justice, philosophy, modeling, business and more.

"That's something we're very proud of," Wu said. "Our curriculum helps our students build a toolbox for cybersecurity, and this will be an opportunity to take some tools from their toolbox and apply them to a real system to study how we can make sure elections are secure."

Students must apply to participate in the VA-CNIP this summer. Eligible students must have completed "Introduction to Cybersecurity" with a grade of B- or better; be legally able to work for the University; have strong written and verbal communication skills; and participate in the election security training. The accepted interns will receive a stipend. Applications can be submitted here.

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