Srinivas Mukkamala was happy to observe, after a quick search online, that hackers exist on the University of Montana campus.

A cybersecurity expert and lead researcher for the Institute for Complex Additive Systems Analysis and Computational Analysis of Cyber Terrorism Against the U.S., Mukkamala noted that rather than a threat, the hackers were part of student group competing to solve complex programming challenges as quickly as possible.

Mukkamala ran across YouTube videos the students posted about their hacking work while researching Montana before his visit.

“It’s good to see,” Mukkamala said. “There are some teennagers saying, ‘What can I do?’ ”

To protect the ever-growing global network of digital data, you have to think like the bad guy, Mukkamala told his audience Tuesday during the “Montana Technology Connection” seminar aimed at highlighting and discussing the state of Montana’s technology infrastructure and the humans who support it.

Almost 90 percent of the tools designed to protect systems in cyberspace don’t provide proper security, Mukkamala said.

For example, Mukkamala’s team recently completed an analysis of a hospital’s digital medical control system. Their work showed crucial equipment was infected with a well-known Qakbot virus. The infection took place after the hospital installed a $780,000 security system.

Simple changes in malware allow it to escape notice from many of those systems, Mukkamala said.

Mukkalmala and his team often hack into systems to conduct security audits and provide research to improve cybersecurity.

A new system they’ve developed works to more quickly read, assess and adapt to changing security risks within minutes, instead of days. Allowing experts to hack into systems is crucial to finding holes in security, he said.

“A key (to staying secure) is making sure networks are connected” and talking to each other at a fast pace, Mukkamala said.

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To beat the bad guys, the industry needs more fast thinkers with strong analytical skills, Mukkamala said.

Another of Mukkamala’s online searches about Montana found there are a host of jobs in the cybersecurity field waiting to be filled.

In Montana, “there is no talent pool to support this emerging industry,” Mukkamala said.

To help fill the void, it’s important for a community to understand its local cyber landscape.

“One thing we did was started offering cybersecurity classes for students and the public, certified courses,” Mukkamala said. “That’s where you can start to understand what your local needs are and start building cirriculum.”

Efforts to train a workforce that can stay ahead of cyber terrorists is constant and competitive.

“That kind of push should come from at least one university in each state,” Mukkamala said.

Conor Smith, president of First Call Computers who attended the seminar, said it’s a continual challenge to walk the line between providing customers with all the latest cyber tools, while maintaining security.

“People want access, but they want to be secure. Those two things are in conflict,” Smith said. “The main challenge is knowledge. It’s good to hear what’s going on out in the (cybersecurity) world. We need to take the challenges to the students and the community.”

The half-day “Montana Technology Connection” event at UM was one of several being held around the state. The idea is to spur discussions on Montana’s available technology infrastructure, including fiber-optic capacity, cybersecurity, big data analytics, data centers, managed services and cloud offerings.

A roundtable discussion following Mukkamala’s presentation included tech leaders from around the state and focused on how technology could drive business growth in Montana.

Reporter Jenna Cederberg can be reached at 523-5241 or at jenna.cederberg@missoulian.com.

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