The Bold Plan to Create Cyber 311 Hotlines | #hacking | #cybersecurity | #infosec | #comptia | #pentest | #ransomware

The idea for the UT-Austin project emerged from discussions in CISA’s Cybersecurity Advisory Committee, a group of experts from the private sector, academia, civil society, and local government. During conversations about a university running a municipal cyber helpline, Austin quickly emerged as the ideal candidate, thanks to its already popular 311 service and the support of two committee members: Steve Adler, who was then Austin’s mayor, and Chesney, an influential UT faculty member.

CISA director Jen Easterly has championed the project and recently told the advisory committee that her agency will consider launching a nationwide cyber 311 system after evaluating Austin’s new clinic and similar efforts.

“The UT-Austin pilot is helping us better understand how we can provide cybersecurity services for small and medium-size businesses across our nation,” Easterly says in a statement, adding that she is “truly excited” about it.

Building a Clinic

UT-Austin’s clinic will take the form of a two-semester course. In the fall, Francesca Lockhart, a former top Texas homeland security official Chesney recruited to lead the project, will teach students cybersecurity skills and partner them with local organizations and businesses, giving students time to learn how those organizations operate and what they need. In the spring, teams of students will then create and implement cybersecurity improvement plans for their clients.

Lockhart’s curriculum will cover lessons like inventorying the devices on a network, scanning for and fixing known vulnerabilities, configuring a firewall, conducting penetration testing, and understanding the Linux operating system and the Python programming language, which are widely used in diagnosing and fixing security issues. 

The 20 people in the inaugural class include students majoring in business and computer science, but also those studying biochemistry and international relations. Lockhart is still evaluating a variety of potential clients, including small businesses; nonprofits serving vulnerable populations in Austin; neighboring school districts and city governments; and startups focused on fighting hunger, disease, and other social ills.

Lockhart says the clinic represents “a great opportunity to get students real-world career experience and fill the cybersecurity workforce gap while also serving the needs of some of these under-resourced organizations.”

Any expansion to a 311-type service is far off. “You need to walk before you run,” Chesney says.

Expanding the Scope

To Steve Adler, Austin’s former mayor, a cyber helpline would be a natural extension of the UT-Austin project.

Austin’s 311 service already gets calls from people worried about phishing scams and other low-level cyberattacks. The next step would be to create a referral system so 311 operators could turn certain calls over to UT-Austin students trained to handle a wide range of common incidents. “It might expand the scope of what people think would be covered by a 311 call,” says Adler, who served as mayor from 2015 to 2023.

Another state is already forging ahead with this idea. Later this year, Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts will launch a security operations center (SOC) to answer emergency calls from the community. The 24/7 SOC, created in partnership with a state-funded consortium, will be staffed by professional cyber experts, but students will be able to observe and participate in their work.


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National Cyber Security