As Local Government Cyber Attacks Grow, Network of Colleges Becomes First Line of Defense

May 31, 2021

Students at Spokane Falls Community College are helping local governments find online threats.
Credit Spokane Falls Community College

Local governments and critical public infrastructure are increasingly becoming the target of cyber-attacks. But some of those governments are working with a network of community colleges, technical schools and state universities to try to protect themselves, and give students an opportunity to get real-world training.

Students at Spokane Falls Community College have spotted potential ransomware, malware, and a host of other hostile programs attacking computers at small, city and town governments around Washington. Samantha Schill is one of them.

“You’re doing something to help prevent the issue from escalating further.  And knowing that you had a part of that is really nice, you know that you’re doing something good even though most people don’t know what you’re doing, you’re secretly helping out.”

Schill is one of the students in the cyber security program who has found threats while monitoring local governments' networks. She's hoping her work at Spokane Falls Community College will prepare her for a career in cyber security.

Her professor, Mark Neufville, said the work his students are doing is essential.

“Local governments can’t go out and hire a full-fledged cyber security staff, not like say the state, or the country. But they still have infrastructure they need to protect. They’re various things that local municipalities have to serve the general public, and they have to protect those, but they don’t have the means.”

SFCC's program is a part of a non-profit called PISCES, which pairs small Washington state governments with college computer science classes. The students keep an eye on a town’s network, and anything that could threaten important services, like permitting, water, garbage and emergency dispatch.

Erik Fretheim, a cyber security professor who oversees a similar class at Western Washington University, said he worried students wouldn’t find anything, but within the first hour, a student noticed an employee using a city computer to mine for bitcoin. In the four years since the program started, they’ve detected phishing attempts, and found viruses and malware that could disrupt city services.

“Since then it’s never slowed down, we’ve found just about everything you can imagine going on.”

The network of colleges participating includes Spokane Falls Community College, Eastern, Western and Central Washington Universities, Green River Community College and Alabama A&M University.

PISCES founder Mike Hamilton said he hopes to expand to other colleges, and create a stronger pipeline of experienced cyber security graduates, and offer protection to more small towns and cities.