Military and Intelligence Interests Grow at Drexel University

Drexel University campus. Photo: Drexel

Drexel University campus. Photo: Drexel

By Sarah McLaughlin

Drexel University appears to be expanding into more areas than just West Philadelphia. In fact, the school is reaching into the realms of cybersecurity and intelligence sharing as part of a very ambitious strategic plan over the next few years in cooperation with all levels of law enforcement, the private sector, and even the military.

The university recently announced the formal launching of its Cybersecurity and Policy Institute, whichaims to be “the Northeast Corridor’s focal point for research and educational programs in organizational cyber risk management.”

Burgeoning initiatives like this should come as no surprise. As early as 2012, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told a Business Executives for National Security gathering:

“The Internet is open.  It’s highly accessible, as it should be.  But that also presents a new terrain for warfare.  It is a battlefield of the future where adversaries can seek to do harm to our country, to our economy, and to our citizens.”

Very little information is available right now about the Cybersecurity Institute, possibly because it is a recent addition to the school, but its main goals include supporting “large infrastructure defense” for local and regional law enforcement agencies, as well as mobile communication providers and the financial sector, according to the organization’s website. In addition, the Institute intends to draw on expertise from Drexel’s Computer Science, Informatics, Law, Library Science, Robotics and even Gaming and Media departments, while also inviting similar departments from other universities to participate.

The Institute also plans to provide “big data intelligence and cyber professionals the opportunity to detect, prevent and thwart would be criminals/attackers…coupled with a cyber range.”

This college will work beneath Drexel’s College of Computing & Informatics, and, in addition to Drexel students and faculty, it plans to include input and research from other universities and “partners within government and industry.”

The Institute’s interim director, retired Air Force colonel Norman Balchunas, told me over the phone that the goal of this Institute is to create a collaborative environment for government, industry, and academic players in the cybersecurity industry.

Balchunas assured me that as a collaborative environment for this intelligence community, the Institute will act as a “one stop shop” for cybersecurity education, best practices identification, and information sharing. He also promised that the Institute would actively “pull together folks” from local and federal intelligence groups.

It doesn’t stop there, however. Drexel wants to create strong ties not only between academics, law enforcement, and the private sector, but military intelligence too.

National Military Intelligence logo. Photo: NMIA website.

National Military Intelligence logo. Photo: NMIA website.

On April 9, the Institute sent out an email updating subscribers on a significant change to the cybersecurity program: the first-ever university chapter for the National Military Intelligence Association (NMIA).

NMIA, according to its website, “fosters activities and programs designed to enhance the theoretical and practical foundations of the intelligence discipline’” and to support “those working in military intelligence, other national security activities, homeland defense, law enforcement, and other fields.

The NMIA’s Drexel chapter is not yet listed on their website, but according to Balchunas, who is quite proud of the school for its role in opening the first school chapter in the U.S., the NMIA approached Drexel first. As the launching of NMIA on Drexel is still in the incubation period, he was unable to provide much in the way of details on what this chapter’s specific functions will look like.

Balchunas seemed most excited about the opportunities this would create for students and the Drexel community as a whole. Students interested in cybersecurity will be working in a program that, according to Balchunas, will allow “data analysts to recruit folks into DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency, an arm of the Pentagon] or CIA [Central Intelligence Agency].”

Balchunas also said that students won’t be the only ones to benefit. In just a few months, the Cybersecurity Institute will be hosting a seminar with the National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA) to aid the NDIA in providing a forum for the exchange of information between industry and government actors.

The NMIA did not respond to repeated requests for comment, although the organization does offer some information on the activities of its local chapters on its website.

These activities include the “enhancement” of the military intelligence profession through “conferences, symposia, meetings, and informal and formal intelligence sharing among members and other interested parties”; creating and expanding “formal and informal social and professional networks…associated with military intelligence”; improving perceptions and understanding of the “practice, culture, uses, and contributions of military intelligence to national security policies, programs, and institutions” through avenues including conferences, meetings, and trainings.

The NMIA, unsurprisingly, also seems intent on managing perceptions of “programs, activities, or other undertakings” approved by a Board of Directors with deep ties to the military and intelligence communities.

Drexel’s alliance with a powerful military intelligence group is undoubtedly something worth watching. What oversight mechanisms, if any, will exist for NMIA’s role at Drexel? Is it appropriate for a university to play what appears to be a significant role in intelligence sharing and cybersecurity? These are grandiose goals for a university chapter, and since this is NMIA’s first university chapter, it is crucial going forward that the public understands how much power and influence the chapter’s participants – and its Board of Directors – will wield over Drexel (i.e. how this group will influence and shape research projects). And how will NMIA’s activities, in partnership with the Cybersecurity Institute, impact similar initiatives on other campuses, as the lines between academia, homeland security, and the private sector continue to blur?

Sarah is a writer and civil liberties advocate living in Philadelphia. She attended Drexel University and now works at a Philadelphia-based legal advocacy group. Sarah is passionate about freedom of speech, science fiction and American foreign policy and will happily argue about them at any time. She can be reached on Twitter @sarahemclaugh.

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