Editor's note: This story was corrected at 1:08 p.m. on Oct. 30, 2018. An earlier version incorrectly stated the number of students participating in the cybersecurity programs.
Robert Griffin, dean of UAlbany’s College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity, pressed students in class last week to think about the future of drones.
He asked students to imagine drones delivering packages in a matter of minutes, assisting farmers, surveying the impact of natural disasters and garnering valuable intelligence for police. But he also asked them to imagine how drones may be used in terrorist attacks or gang activity, to spy on neighbors or to interfere with commerce.
The technology has both good and bad uses -- the potential to improve lives and the potential to destroy them.
“The thing I have to get them to see is that they want the right answer,” Griffin said after the class. “And there is no right answer ... You have a collection of bad and worse decisions.”
The students may be studying the art and science of deciding between tough options, but they are also entering an emerging field in the nation’s first school focused on emergency response and homeland security.
The world the students will work in will be deeply changed by technology that is only now taking shape, and they will have to reckon with how that technology is used, policed and regulated.
“If you think about our policies and laws, we haven’t kept up with this technology,” Griffin said during the class.
The program’s popularity has continued to grow since it was established in 2016. In its first year, it drew 155 students who majored in the field. Last fall, 397 students majored in the emergency preparedness, homeland security and cybersecurity program, and this year, 591 are majoring in the program.
Another 345 students are minoring in cybersecurity-related programs, and nearly 200 more students intend to declare majors in the school. The growth is far outpacing what school leaders expected when the program launched; initial projections were for 110 majors by this year and 200 by 2020. Nearly 150 students have already graduated with degrees in the new programs, earning enough credits before the program launched to finish shortly after it was established.
“You know it’s going to be applied in the field in the future,” said freshman Mike Mieses, after last week's class. “It’s modern and relevant.”
“Every day is different,” said fellow freshman Andrew Flynn.
The challenges Griffin’s class grappled with last week are profound. While drone technology can be a boon to farmers, it may pose serious security risks. While it will assist in finding people and surveying damage in emergencies, it raises a new miasma of privacy concerns.
“If it can put pesticides over a field, I can drop chemicals over a city,” Griffin said. “The technology is really important to modern agriculture, but it’s potentially a weapon in the hands of bad guys.”
And bad guys are already taking advantage of drone technology, Griffin told the class. He explained how drones have been used to smuggle contraband into prisons, move drugs across international borders and by criminals watching for police response to an incident.
“You can start to see the conflict between where good and bad meet … you are starting to see where laws and police and regulations are not keeping up with advances in our technology,” Griffin told the students. “How do you weigh the community good of this technology versus the concerns of your public safety folks?”
This fall, the class has taken a similar approach in studying gene-editing technology and 3-D printing -- examining the positives in the context of their potential nefarious uses and the issues they present to police, federal agencies and policymakers at the local, state and federal levels.
Presenting the dichotomy of emerging technologies' uses and impacts forces students to start thinking like emergency responders and managers. Not only do they need a strong technical understanding of technologies that bring security concerns, Griffin said, they also need the critical-thinking skills to evaluate the risks and benefits and find solutions to difficult problems.
“I use technology as a way of getting them to analyze the larger problem set,” Griffin said.
The students also need strong writing and communication skills and an ability to quickly summarize problems under time constraints. When he worked for the federal Department of Homeland Security, Griffin said communicating effectively was a major part of the job.
Mieses said he has joined a program through the school that lets students practice simulated cyberattacks – a method for highlighting the security weaknesses of businesses, governments and other organizations.
“You literally practice hacking,” he said.
Students also have had a chance to shape the new program. A student project, for example, has grown into a volunteer operations support team, a group of students who can monitor social media during an emergency to support first responders on the ground.
The college is also looking to expand its graduate program, with plans to add advanced degrees in information science, data analytics and intelligence analysis. Griffin said he also wants to expand programs for professionals to earn new certifications or learn new skills. He also pointed to online programs as an area of potential expansion. The school is converting an old basketball court on its downtown campus into a drone lab, and it expects to move in 2021 to UAlbany’s new Emerging Technology and Entrepreneurship Complex at the Harriman state office campus.
“Students are coming out with a resume more robust than just a degree,” Griffin said.