Students at a South Dakota college campus could wind up on the front lines of a new version of the Cold War emerging between the U.S. and Russia.  Capitol Hill lawmakers have been vowing to investigate possible Russian influence in the 2016 presidential campaign.  Those alleged cyber-attacks by the Kremlin are raising the educational profile at Dakota State.

Another record enrollment at Dakota State University in Madison underscores its growing reputation as one of the nation’s top cyber-security schools.  Allegations of Russian cyber-attacks on Democrats during the 2016 campaign place an additional spotlight on DSU’s mission.

“Our students understand that the skills they’re learning, if they’re going to work for a government agency, they’re going to be used to identify any rogue nations-states that are trying to attack us,” DSU digital forensics professor Ashley Podhradsky said.

There’s no evidence the hacks swayed votes that put Republican Donald Trump in the White House.  Yet, Trump at first, was reluctant to acknowledge Russia was behind the attacks, saying nobody can know for sure. 

“And that is a popular misconception that if you don’t catch the hacker in the act that you can’t figure out who it was and that’s just not true.  With enough resources, you can figure that out; there’s always some trace,” Podhradsky said.

These digital detectives at Dakota State learn how to seek out those cyber clues that will expose hackers and systems that are vulnerable to attack.

“I feel like from when I started college to now, there are so many changes in the cyber security field that a lot more students are realizing that it’s a big topic and how important it is within the world,” Dakota State graduate student Stephanie Plucker said.

While hackers use technology to launch attacks, there’s also a human element that can trip them up and reveal their cyber-footprint.

“It’s like walking into a room and realizing you have muddy footprints, right?  Then, you’re walking back out, you’re cleaning it up, but there’s always going to be that last footprint,” Podhradsky said.

Dakota State is a key academic ally with the U.S. intelligence community by partnering with the National Security Agency as a training ground for future NSA employees.  Keeping up with the dizzying pace of technology is all part of the spiraling cyber arms race that DSU professors say has been going on for decades.

“Attackers find new ways to get in and the good guys find new ways to defend or block and then they come with even more ways to get in,” DSU cyber-operations professor Josh Stroschein said.

Dakota State students say it’s both exciting and a little bit intimidating that they’re going to be the future watchdogs of cyber-attacks in both the private and public sectors.

“If you don’t figure out who did something in the forensics world it’s not going to be like, ‘Oh, you just got a bad grade in class.’  It’s actually affecting the world,” Plucker said.

Some people think cyber-attacks by Russia pose a serious threat to the democratic process. That raises the stakes even further for these Dakota State students once they graduate and begin their careers in foiling hackers around the globe.  

Dakota State professors say Internet trolls who post so-called “fake news” online can be another form of cyber-attack.  Your best defense against those posts is to thoroughly vet the information, so you don’t get fooled.