Meet Ethical Hacker Dr. X

Meet Ethical Hacker Dr. X

It all started with Johnny Lee Miller and Angelina Jolie – or, at least, their 1995 film, Hackers. She may have been just a high school student at the time, but Xenia Mountrouidou had found her calling: She wanted to be a hacker.

“Of course, looking back, I didn’t really know what a hacker was – I didn’t realize that wasn’t a legal profession,” laughs the assistant professor, aka Dr. X, who taught herself programming as a teenager in Athens, Greece, and then went on to study computer network optimization and performance as Ph.D. student at North Carolina State University. “That led me to computer network security – detecting the bad guys, the intruders, and studying what they do. The purpose is ultimately mitigating different types of attacks.”

RELATED: Read an essay by Dr. X on the definition of “hacker.”

Dr. X joined the College’s computer science department this semester, bringing a three-year $300,000 National Science Foundation grant to integrate cybersecurity into the undergraduate computer science program. The idea behind the grant is to advance undergraduate STEM education in the liberal arts and thereby develop a modern cybersecurity workforce.

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Dr. X taught herself programming as a teenager in Athens, Greece, and then went on to study computer network optimization and performance as Ph.D. student at North Carolina State University.

“The grant lets us introduce students to computer security early on, which is important because this is a field that’s not going away – it’s going to continue to be important,” she says. “This is going to be a research area for the foreseeable future. And, when you think about it, cyber security is something that every other field relies on – so it’s something students need to be aware of in general.”

It’s something we all need to be aware of, actually – and there’s no better time to raise awareness than now: October is National Cyber Security Awareness Month. The Department of Computer Science is joining the collaborative effort between government and industry to ensure all digital citizens know how to stay secure online by offering safety tips on social media and on the department blog.

For her part, Dr. X will be giving a talk on Oct. 24, 2016, as part of the Computer Science Research Speaker Series. The talk begins at 3:30 p.m. at Harbor Walk West, Room 217, and will focus on her new Cybersecurity Research Lab, where she and her students are focusing on software vulnerabilities and the vulnerability of the “Internet of Things.”

“That’s our biggest challenge right now: the Internet of Things, like devices, watches, smart thermostats. It’s like the Wild West of computer security,” she says, noting that other projects in the lab include developing learning modules that will be used in general-education courses, developing solutions for detection and mitigation of computer network attacks, such as Denial of Service, and experimenting with different coding schemes for covert channel communication. “The problem is that security isn’t the first thing we consider – we’re too busy creating buzz, racing to get the product on the market. It’s not anyone’s fault – that’s how we work: Security comes second – sometimes after it’s out on the market. The bad news is, our data is quite vulnerable. The good news, is, we have job security!”

Indeed, by 2020, there will be 1.5 million cybersecurity jobs – a job growth average of 18 percent, much higher than the national average of seven percent.

The other good news: It never gets old.

“Things are always changing, so there’s always something new to learn, another challenge, another problem to solve,” says Dr. X, adding that that’s one thing she enjoys about teaching. “I love watching students make connections – and then they run with their ideas, and it’s just fun to watch. It teaches me so much! My students add so much to my own knowledge and my own growth.”

This semester, Dr. X is teaching a course in software architecture, which she says has been very popular because of the election and the currency of e-voting, and a seminar on computing in society – or, what she calls, “the ethics of being a computer scientist.” Next semester she will be teaching a First-Year Seminar called Cybersecurity 101, which will explore concepts of cybersecurity and how they can be applied to students’ programs of study.

Cybersecurity has proven to be a popular field on campus. In fact, there was already a Cybersecurity Club when Dr. X arrived at the College. The club meets weekly, preparing for competitions in offense and defense. This month, they will participate in a Capture the Flag competition, where they have to find clues and analyze puzzles to win.

“It’s competitive, so they are having fun,” says Dr. X. “But it’s a really great means to improving skills and learning.”

And, now that she has added cybersecurity research to the computer science department, she hopes that it will continue to grow at the College.

“The liberal arts setting is the perfect setting for this research, because it sets out to create well-rounded citizens with multidisciplinary understanding of how things work,” she says. “Cybersecurity affects us all – it adds so much to every field of interest. Having some knowledge of this, it is just going to make you more successful – whether you’re going into business, political science, communication, medical careers.”

In other words, no matter what your calling is, you can always be an ethical hacker.

Dr. X’s Tips for Cybersecurity:

  • Create Multiple Email Addresses: Everyone should have at least three email addresses – one for financial communication, one for personal and one for professional.
  • Change Passwords Often: People get lazy on this one, but if you have had the same password or PIN for anything for more than six months, you need to change it right now.
  • Wait to Buy Devices: The first generation of devices that use networking almost always has some kind of security issue. It doesn’t take long for the glitches to get worked out, so be patient and wait for the second generation to come out.
  • Use a Password Manager: Do not reuse passwords!
  • Update Your Software: Updates keep the security current.
  • Download with Caution: Only download legitimate software from trusted sites.