May 11, 2015Vol. 45, Issue 5

On the Front Lines of the Cyberwars

AJ Sivalingam helps fight security breaches from his home laboratory

AJ Sivalingam conducts information security research from a lab he built at his home in Chico. There, he meets twice weekly with a group of fellow college students to reverse engineer computer viruses. 

 

The White House. Sony. British Airways. Anthem.

All have been recent victims of phishing attacks. These hoaxes, designed to elicit sensitive information from people, are “simple but extraordinarily dangerous,” says AJ Sivalingam, a senior majoring in criminal justice. 

Sivalingam came to CSU, Chico after eight years as a naval corpsman serving with the Marines. While he was stationed at Camp Pendleton in Southern California, one of his lieutenants, a Chico grad, told him about the University and how supportive the school was of student research and advancement. “I decided to come check it out,” says Sivalingam, “and I liked it. Except for not having a beach, Chico is pretty awesome.”

He planned to be a doctor and entered the University as a psychology major. But he soon became fascinated by the news about security and data assurance and switched to criminal justice while taking a cross-section of classes in computer information systems, computer science, management information systems, business information systems, international relations, and law enforcement.

And although Sivalingam no longer plans to practice medicine, he has brought the ethos of diagnosing illness in complex systems into his new field, using the language of medicine to explain cybersecurity. He compares computer systems to the human body, and the study of their viruses to microbiology. His specialty in digital forensics involves working in a lab “where we can take viruses apart and look at the anatomy of how they are developed.”

That lab is one he built at his house in order to do research in information security, studying vulnerabilities in computer systems. He meets twice a week with a group of fellow college students to work as “white hat hackers,” reverse engineering viruses and helping businesses and law enforcement agencies find security vulnerabilities. “We wanted to do research and development,” he says. “And we needed a place with no limits, lots of flexibility in our environment to adapt to constantly changing technology.”

The lab has attracted attention from industry backers, who have donated equipment and software. He and his fellow lab members have been invited to demonstrate an attack to the Chico Technology Group, showing industry members “how our research is impacting the world of technology.” 

Sivalingam himself is attracting attention, and interviewing for jobs at places like Facebook and Apple after he graduates in December. He says talented cyberengineers are in demand as what he calls the “cyberwars” become more public and impact us more and more. “It’s frightening how casual people are about it,” he says, adding that the business world and computer industry is more aware of the dangers.

“My time in a special operations unit in the military definitely trained me well for the cyberwars,” he says, explaining that transitioning to civilian life was incredibly difficult. 

“When I got out, I kind of didn’t have an identity anymore, and my PTSD really brought that out,” he says, with a glance at Freyja, the PTSD service dog at his feet. “It feels good to be in college, to be an innovator in my field. I have my identity back.” 

—Anna Harris, Public Affairs and Publications

Video link

What Would You Tell Your Freshman Self?

In this video, seniors share their touching—and funny—reflections on their college careers. Watch the video.

Commencement

125th Commencement

Four days of commencement ceremonies begin Thursday, May 14. Search #Chico2015 on social media for a live chronicle of events. See schedule.

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