A Brute Force: (I-) HACKing It

Gannon student Victoria Bartlett was faced with a cybersecurity breach after a malicious code was injected into one of her apps, exposing personal information.

Bartlett was not concerned. She had hacked it herself.

The real concern for her and the rest of us lies in data that shows a dramatic increase in such cyberattacks as a result of an increasingly technological world and a shift to remote working and learning.

Gannon University is on the forefront of training the next generation of networking talent to tackle these concerns.

The University formally opened its 100,000-square-foot Institute for Health and Cyber Knowledge, or I-HACK, during a dedication and blessing ceremony on Feb. 19. The ceremony marked the culmination of phase one of the University’s transformation of a former call center into a place where students will work with leaders in business to design, integrate and protect cybernetic intelligence and data systems worldwide.

“It’s really exciting to be in I-HACK. It’s a great space for learning as all the equipment is brand-new, and the classrooms are created with my major in mind,” said Bartlett, a sophomore in the cybersecurity program.

Gannon’s $13 million investment into phase one of the project developed the exterior of the facility,  first-floor lobby, and the second-floor Pierre McCormick Cyber Learning Center.


View a tour of the I-Hack facility

As part of the renovations, students now enter I-HACK through a first-floor lobby area featuring a glass-enclosed student gathering space and a nine-screen TV wall display that previews the type of technology outfitted throughout the building.

An iconic steel-framed staircase leads to the second-floor Pierre McCormick Cyber Learning Center – also known as the academic heart of I-HACK. This educational space houses classrooms, open collaborative spaces, faculty offices and new cutting-edge laboratories, where students are learning how to design technology and deploy tactics to prevent and protect against cyberattacks. These are known as the Cyber Defense Lab, Cyber Attack Lab  and Cyber Innovation Lab.

The Pierre McCormick Cyber Learning Center advances educational training and technology development to enhance cyber defense across the fields of cybersecurity, cyber engineering, health care, computer-based applications, business management and criminal justice.

Bartlett is one of 39 students enrolled in Gannon’s undergraduate and graduate cyber programs as of spring 2021.

“I’ve always been curious about computers and troubleshooting and solving problems,” Bartlett said. “The courses I read about at Gannon was when I really felt excited about possibly pursuing cybersecurity.”

Bartlett became one of the first students to learn in I-HACK’s Cyber Attack Lab – a space where students employ and deploy ethical hacking techniques in a controlled environment to simulate and study real-world attacks – through her mobile security and implementation course this spring.

“It’s about how to develop android applications with security in mind and then looking at how those apps can be exploited through various attacks,” Bartlett said of the course.

Using Android Studio, Bartlett built several Android apps to understand how they work. Next, she pulled malicious code from a website and embedded it into the app’s coding, breaching important information like user location and activity.

“To have hands-on experience with this was so cool,” Bartlett said. “It wasn’t all theory. We built an app and used it on real phones and devices. We only used a couple lines of code to hack it, so it was scary. But this is something that does happen.”

“It wasn’t all theory. We built an app and used it on real phones and devices. We only used a couple lines of code to hack it... This is something that does happen.” - Victoria Bartlett

It happens so often, in fact, that a recent KPMG study reported that the technology skills shortage is at its highest level since 2008. A further report by Cyber Seek emphasizes the cybersecurity gap across the country with more than 464,000 current job openings across the nation with 14,413 of those being in Pennsylvania.

Gannon’s venture into the cyber industry will train students with the digital skills needed to meet these in-demand careers, and that also involves partnering with leading industry talent like Extreme Networks.

Extreme Networks will be housed in the third-floor Hatchery this fall, but students like Travis Newcamp  have already experienced the impact of this business partnership.

Newcamp, a 2021 graduate of Gannon’s information systems program, is one of 14 Gannon students who became the first in the country to earn industry-specific certifications through Gannon’s partnership with Extreme Networks.

The certifications are embedded into Gannon’s academic curriculum so students and aspiring IT professionals can earn industry certifications as they complete their courses, learning topics like networking, security, cloud learning, machine learning and artificial intelligence. The training is valued at thousands of dollars but comes at no additional cost to students.

“As a student, we have all decided to pursue a greater education that distinguishes ourselves from the rest of the job pool,” Newcamp said of his decision to complete the training. He’s already differentiated himself in the job market, using his education and credentials to secure a career in his field before graduation.

Newcamp said the certificate will benefit him in his new technical role.

“Knowing how information travels is extremely important in troubleshooting different kinds of machines. We all have phones, laptops and other machines, and learning how they communicate is so important. (This certification) sets me and my colleagues apart because it conveys a stronger desire to learn and improve ourselves.”

“(This) program helps individuals gain real-world skills for today’s digital economy,” said Susantha Herath, Ph.D., associate dean of the College of Engineering and Business. “Students get the opportunity to gain networking or IT knowledge using an interactive and immersive learning environment.”

Karinna Vernaza, Ph.D., dean of the College of Engineering and Business, said it is inspiring to “witness the impact that elevating our academic excellence, and this facility and the resources accompanied with it are having on our students as they prepare for their future careers.” 

“Cybersecurity is quickly becoming a component of all aspects of life. This facility provides the opportunity for students across multiple majors to gain a basic knowledge and understanding of cybersecurity to apply to the work in their fields, providing a competitive edge as they enter the job market,” Vernaza said.

As the global call to meet the critical demand for highly skilled cyber professionals is heard, Gannon will continue to invest heavily into the futures of students through I-HACK resources and expanding academic opportunities.

As part of phase two, the University will continue developing I-HACK’s upper floors for additional business partners and to create commercial space and data storage capabilities that will create new jobs and regional workforce and business development opportunities. 

In total, Gannon anticipates renovations to I-HACK to cost $28 million.

Bartlett said she hopes to capitalize on this investment to secure a future career in cybersecurity education or cyber forensics.

“I see myself at a company that is dedicated to helping people stay secure and data remain private. I plan to always keep learning and adapting to future technologies and policies,” Bartlett said. “It is inspiring to think about all of the possibilities.”

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