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Conference highlights cybercrime research at USF Sarasota-Manatee | #cybercrime | #computerhacker


By Marc R. Masferrer, University Communications and Marketing

An international training conference on cyberfraud at the University of South Florida
Sarasota-Manatee this week highlighted the university’s expanding role in preparing
students and others to meet growing cybersecurity challenges and threats.

Among the presenters at the two-day conference were campus faculty and students researching
sextortion and the motivations of computer hackers; and Ernie Ferraresso, the director
of the USF-based Cyber Florida, which leads the state’s cybersecurity efforts.

About 185 scholars, law enforcement officials, USF students and others attended the
conference, which was organized by the International Association of Financial Crimes Investigators and co-sponsored by Sarasota Cybersecurity, Cyber Florida, the University of New
Haven and USF Sarasota-Manatee.

Sarasota-Manatee Regional Chancellor Karen Holbrook opened the conference with welcoming
remarks to attendees that underscored the crucial role of partnerships and student
involvement in the advancement of the cybersecurity sector. 

The Sarasota-Manatee campus is home to USF’s undergraduate cybersecurity program,
which is offered by the Muma College of Business, and to Sarasota Cybersecurity, a research lab directed by C. Jordan Howell, an assistant professor of criminology in the College of Behavioral and Community
Sciences. Last month, USF announced its intent to be one of the first universities
in the U.S. to launch a college devoted to artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and computing.

The event showcased the innovative research at USF Sarasota-Manatee and the significant
role Sarasota Cybersecurity plays in nurturing the next generation of cybersecurity
professionals.

“This event was a demonstration of the shared commitment to cybersecurity and the
exceptional caliber of the students on campus,” Howell said.

At USF Sarasota-Manatee, the Department of Criminology this fall also is starting
a fully online concentration in criminal justice administration within the current
master’s in criminal justice program, tailored to empower law enforcement professionals
like those at the conference with advanced knowledge and expertise in managing and
leading within the criminal justice system.

Howell and Kaylee Eckelman, Sarasota Cybersecurity’s lab manager and a graduate student
in the Muma College of Business, presented their research on computer hackers, their
motivations and what it might take for them to use their skills in a more positive
way. Much of the research is based on surveys of hackers Howell contacted through
an online database that records hacking attacks. 

The responses offered insights into the economic, political and other motivations
of hackers; the status of their mental health and other conditions that might drive
their behavior; and what it would take for them to end their illegal activity.

A highlight of the presentation was a telephone interview with “BlackPython,” a hacker
who Howell has become friendly with as part of his research. BlackPython, a man in
his early 20s who carried out his first hack when he was 14 and said he focuses on
attacking websites, was circumspect in answering questions that might reveal his identity
or information that, for example, might help some of the conference attendees thwart
future attacks.

Howell said such interactions are vital to his research.

“To effectively combat hackers, we must comprehend their motivations and tactics,”
he said.

Another speaker at the conference was Roberta O’Malley, an assistant professor of criminology at USF Sarasota-Manatee and co-director of
Sarasota Cybersecurity. She presented her research on sextortion, a digital era phenomenon
where an offender threatens to distribute intimate videos, images or information unless
the victim complies with financial or other demands.

Results of a survey of more than 200 sextortion victims found that a large number
of the initial contacts between victims and offenders occurred via dating apps and
Instagram, where “influencers” who rely on attracting and maintaining a high number
of followers to make a living, are often targeted because offenders know they cannot
afford to have embarrassing information released.

O’Malley’s co-presenter, Richard Dean, assistant special agent in charge of the U.S.
Secret Service’s office in Tampa, said O’Malley’s findings highlight the importance
of parents keeping close tabs of the online habits of their children to prevent them
from being victimized by sextortionists and other bad actors, many of whom are overseas
and beyond the reach of the law.

Other topics presented at the conference, which was held in the Selby Auditorium on
April 18-19, included online sexual grooming; human trafficking; ransomware; child
exploitation; and the risk of fraud as the use of artificial intelligence becomes
more prevalent. Presenters included law enforcement officials and industry experts.

For more information about the new master’s in criminal justice program, contact program
director Jessica Grosholz at 941-359-4324 or jgrosholz@usf.edu. 

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