Carnegie Mellon University

James Wong

November 20, 2020

"A perfect complement:" The interplay between IPS' cybersecurity minor and technical majors at CMU

By Bill Brink

When Hinna Hafiz arrived at Carnegie Mellon University, she wanted to work for the government, perhaps in the Department of Defense. Taking courses in the Cybersecurity and International Conflict minor, a program within the Institute for Politics and Strategy, added another layer to her career considerations by contextualizing the hard skills she learned in her Electrical and Computer Engineering major.

“As time has gone on, I’ve questioned [government work] a little bit, in part because of what I’ve learned in our cybersecurity courses,” Hafiz said. “I think there might be times in that position where I would have to go against my personal views in order to do the work that I’m asked to do. I don’t yet know if that’s what I’m willing to do, and I don’t know how that would really work out.”

hinna-hafiz-2.jpgHinna Hafiz

It is this contextualization and perspective that the Cybersecurity and International Conflict minor can add to students pursuing a technical major such as engineering or computer science. By adding the ‘why’ to a technical major’s ‘how,’ the minor illustrates the use of technology in politics and on the battlefield between both nation-states and non-state actors.

“I think the cyber minor is a perfect complement to a more technical education because it provides the theoretical background and the conceptual understanding,” said IPS Assistant Teaching Professor Colin Clarke, whose course “The Future of Warfare” is a core course in the minor. “Just laying the foundation for those that do have the more technical chops to go in there and become a more well-rounded student, and enter the workforce with a better understanding of how these two actually fuse together.”

The Cybersecurity and International Conflict minor was created in 2018, near the end of Radhika Gupta’s sophomore year. Gupta, who graduated in 2020 with a degree in Computer Science along with the cyber minor, entered Carnegie Mellon with a passion for international affairs. When the new minor was created and she realized her International Relations and Politics minor courses would count, she switched.

“Seeing after my first year how technical my major was, I’m really happy that I did a minor within Dietrich,” Gupta said. “A lot of people believe they should do a minor or another major that’s still technically focused, but I think it’s been really helpful to expand my breadth and get exposed to different areas.”

Gupta took two courses with Professor Clarke: “The Future of Warfare” and “Terrorism and Insurgency.”

“Look at what the Russians are doing in Ukraine,” Clarke said. “Look at what the United States did to the Islamic State by shutting down some of their most critical propaganda networks. You can’t separate technology and the cyber realm from warfare today. They’re one and the same.”

The breadth of experience can be especially beneficial to someone like James Wong, a junior Mechanical Engineering major who is also minoring in Cybersecurity and International Conflict. Wong was into robotics in high school, so his guitar teacher, a Pittsburgh native, recommended Carnegie Mellon. Now Wong is the head mechanic for The Fringe buggy team, the mechanical design lead for Carnegie Mellon Rocket Command, and an aspiring member of the Reserve Officer Training Corps.

“In terms of [computer science] and IPS, it’s been interesting understanding what the consequences of cyber crimes, cyber warfare, would be strategically,” Wong said. “How we can leverage the two.”

Wong took “Space and National Security” with IPS Adjunct Instructor Forrest Morgan, who spent twenty-seven years in the Air Force, including stints as a space operation officer. Wong used some of the knowledge gained in that course for ROTC presentations.

“I think it’s a great way to explore more than just the theories that we’re used to in these technical majors, where everything is just numbers, these are just the hard-and-fast laws of the universe,” Wong said. “I think that looking at the cybersecurity minor, you’re forced to think about things that are not as cut-and-dry. In some ways, it will force you to think more, or think differently, than how you’re traditionally challenged in those technical classes.”

“You make students think through it and think about, what is the strategy?” Morgan said. “What should we expect from the enemy and how should the United States use cyber attacks to achieve national security objectives? How do we integrate that with other military capabilities to get the job done?”

Valeria Salinas Moreno entered the minor with those thoughts already on her mind. The junior Electrical and Computer Engineering major saw the election interference in 2016 and wanted to learn more, and took the course “Killer Robots: The Ethics, Law, and Politics of Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems.” She was hooked.

It really impacted me,” she said. “I don’t want to live in a world like that, if you don’t know whether you’re going to be safe or not. I need to change that.”

Upon graduation, Moreno wants to find a career building secure hardware systems.

“When I started taking the classes, I was like, wait, this is something that everyone should be aware of, not just people who are really interested in government,” she said. “I feel like everyone from my major should take at least one of these classes because they’re going to get you thinking, how is what I’m doing going to impact my country, the rest of the world?”

The minor does not require a technical background. It provides enough nuts-and-bolts instruction to make it accessible to anyone. But for students majoring in technical disciplines, the minor augments that instruction with context, policy, history, and application.

“The more technical students, computer scientists, electrical engineers, will know many of the technical aspects that we teach,” said IPS Adjunct Professor Isaac Porche, who teaches the core class “Technology and Policy of Cyber War.” “But what we do is we blend that into the historical review of past attacks to give context to that technical depth, and we also add how that technology is affected by, and affects, policy-making. It takes that raw understanding of the fundamentals and shows how it applies for operations and missions and goals that entities, organizations, and countries seek.”