Cyber warfare isn't just a Hollywood plot line. It's real. The United States is ramping up protection against a growing number of attacks on federal defense and security networks. If successful, foreign attackers could severely cripple those networks, leaving the nation vulnerable.
A quiet basement computer lab on the campus of Dakota State University in Madison doesn't look all that exciting. But those who use this room affectionately call it the "hacker lab" and they don't mind being called hackers.
"In my mind it is just someone who likes to learn more. I've always been the kind of kid who has been curious, break apart the VCR to learn how it works and I just went into computers, wondering how everything works and break things to maybe make it better," Dave Miller said.
In fact, hacking is what these students are learning to do.
"It's awesome. It's one of the best feelings in the world. The first time in class I hacked a machine and got into a remote machine, I just remember this smile and an overwhelming joy that filled me. It's the best," Miller said.
Miller is a second year grad student at DSU and is enrolled in the university's cyber operations program. That program is associated with the federal government and the National Security Agency.
"Cyber warfare is a very real threat. If we want the United States to be able to defend itself in the same way we did 50, 60 years ago in traditional warfare, the venue has just changed to the cyber world," Josh Pauli said.
Professor Josh Pauli says the federal government's computers and networks are under a constant bombardment of attacks. For years, the government has simply built walls to keep those attacks at bay, now, they're recruiting specialized students to maintain that protection, and go on the hunt.
"You get to play offense, you get to be a hacker to defend the country, but that's your mission. Your mission is to disrupt other countries, your mission is to protect the U.S. with offensive measures," Pauli said.
Of the four schools currently enrolled in the federal program, DSU is not only the smallest school but also the only public school.
"There are only three or four top level agencies that do cyber operations. They need hundreds and hundreds of people who can do it. That's why they started the designation program. The majority of our students are going to go do that for a set number of years. Some will do that for two or three years and they'll want to move back, others will be there for 20, 30 years and become a core member of the federal government workforce," Pauli said.
The students who make it through the program not only have top secret jobs waiting for them, they'll become a front-line force. You'd think that puts DSU staff members under a tremendous amount of pressure.
"I think the majority of the pressure is internal, both from ourselves as faculty and our students. Our students constantly pushing, pushing, wanting to know more, and we have a very agile that want to learn more and teach more," Pauli said.
"I know right when we heard about the cyber operations and that we even had the possibility for that, I tried to ramp up my studies as much as I could because it is such a big opportunity for a student, especially in the world we live in now, it's hard to find a job and job security, that's probably one of the greatest things about it," Miller said.
And in the end, the computer work of these students will make our world a safer place and they'll be some of the world's most advanced cyber security specialists.
Nearly 30 universities applied to be part of the federal program. The others that met the NSA standards are the Naval Postgraduate School, Northeastern University and the University of Tulsa.