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The Rapid7 Cyber Threat Intelligence Laboratory at the University of South Florida will provide data on real-world threats for faculty and students to use in their research.

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At the most basic level, security research happens when curious people poke around data. What makes it good security research is when these people have access to good data and the right kind of skills.

That is what Rapid7 hopes to accomplish with its new partnership with the University of South Florida to create a cyber threat intelligence laboratory. The Boston company recently made a $1.5 million donation via the Rapid7 Cybersecurity Foundation to set up the Rapid7 Cyber Threat Intelligence Laboratory at the school.

Rapid7 will provide the laboratory with access to its massive data initiatives, including Metasploit, Velociraptor, and Sonar, says Corey Thomas, Rapid7's CEO. The laboratory will support interdisciplinary research efforts by faculty experts and students and help drive a deeper understanding of the challenges defenders are currently facing.

"We are already investing in the data, and we want more people to use the data," says Thomas, noting that people with varying experiences and backgrounds bring diverse perspectives and wind up using the data differently. "Start with the same data and get different insights," Thomas says.

Improving Research Outcomes Through Data

The students will have the opportunity for hands-on learning and cybersecurity skills development as well as real-world experience tracking global threat actors. Laboratory projects and research based on threat intelligence data will help students better understand the challenges security practitioners face as they protect users, Thomas says. The laboratory would play a role in helping to educate and develop the next generation of security professionals, he adds.

Through the laboratory, students and faculty will have access to real world data they can use for research and training, which is an "unprecedented opportunity," Robert Bishop, dean of the USF College of Engineering, says in an email to Dark Reading. "Most importantly, this partnership is going to bring the campus together on cybersecurity research."

The laboratory will launch by establishing an interdisciplinary faculty leadership foundation with a new directorship in the USF College of Engineering and endowed faculty positions created in four USF colleges: the College of Arts and Sciences, College of Behavioral and Community Sciences, College of Engineering, and the Muma College of Business. The laboratory will also work closely with the State of Florida's Cyber Florida initiative, a program based out of the university focused on expanding and enhancing the cybersecurity workforce in the Tampa Bay region.

Rapid7 already has a history of investing in the community, Thomas says. There are many areas of collaboration in threat intelligence, incident response, and information sharing. With this partnership with the University of South Florida, the company is "escalating our commitment to open data, open research, and open threat intelligence," Thomas says.

Real-World Security Education

Thomas says he is not going to try to predict what kind of research projects will come out of the laboratory. Rapid7 is providing the data, but the university faculty and students will be pushing forward their own ideas and perspectives. "We aren't controlling the outcome — the professors and students have their own plans," Thomas says.

Many universities have established cybersecurity laboratories to provide students with hands-on learning opportunities to gain cybersecurity skills and real-world experience in the field. A laboratory setting makes it possible to refine techniques, get access to different resources from outside partners, and collaborate across different fields to drive research in security technology and techniques. The results of the laboratory research will help improve the industry's understanding of attacker behavior, and those insights then flows back to practitioners to apply to their jobs.

Back in 2018, the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) opened a cybersecurity laboratory at the University of Waterloo to help build advanced cybersecurity and privacy tools. The RBC investment supported researchers in the David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science and the Department of Combinatorics and Optimization at Waterloo's Faculty of Mathematics, according to the university. Research projects included data-driven software defined security, privacy-enhancing technologies, and post-quantum cryptography. Defense contractor Northrop Grumman partnered with California Polytechnic University back in 2014 to establish the Cal Poly–Northrop Grumman Cyber Lab as a cybersecurity teaching facility. The lab gave faculty and students the opportunity to engage with experts from other higher education institutions, private businesses, defense and government agencies, and research labs.

These private sector partnerships with educational institutions also focus on developing a cybersecurity workforce. For example, IBM partnered with Historically Black College & Universities to establish Cybersecurity Leadership Centers. As part of the partnership, IBM provides a customized security curriculum and learning platform to complement the university's cybersecurity education offerings. Faculty and students also have access to IBM Security's Command Center, an immersive training experience on how to respond to cyberattacks.

The Rapid7 Cyber Threat Intelligence Laboratory fits in with ongoing cybersecurity initiatives at the University of South Florida because of the focus on developing the skills needed to enter the cybersecurity workforce. The university recently received a $3.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to establish the Cybersecurity Research and Education for Service in Government (CREST) program. The NSF grant would provide scholarships for over two dozen graduate and undergraduate students to prepare them for in-demand and high-paying jobs with the federal government and other public institutions, according to a university press release. The funds will also be used to bolster educational and research resources at the Florida Center for Cybersecurity, or Cyber Florida, which is housed at USF and gives students access to classroom simulations and experiential learning opportunities. There is also a program to help professionals without a computer science background enter a master's program in the field, according to Dr. Sudeep Sarkar, distinguished university professor and department chair of computer science and engineering at the University of South Florida.

"By focusing on both continuing education for professionals and enhancing current cybersecurity education efforts, USF is working to fill the talent pipeline for one of the fastest growing and most lucrative fields in the United States," Sarkar tells Dark Reading in an email exchange.

About the Author(s)

Fahmida Y. Rashid, Managing Editor, Features, Dark Reading

As Dark Reading’s managing editor for features, Fahmida Y Rashid focuses on stories that provide security professionals with the information they need to do their jobs. She has spent over a decade analyzing news events and demystifying security technology for IT professionals and business managers. Prior to specializing in information security, Fahmida wrote about enterprise IT, especially networking, open source, and core internet infrastructure. Before becoming a journalist, she spent over 10 years as an IT professional -- and has experience as a network administrator, software developer, management consultant, and product manager. Her work has appeared in various business and test trade publications, including VentureBeat, CSO Online, InfoWorld, eWEEK, CRN, PC Magazine, and Tom’s Guide.

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