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A Secured Career

Job security is about to take on a whole new meaning...

By Anne Baye Ericksen

Your heart skips a beat. Your pulse quickens. Your breathing switches from its normal pace to quick, shallow bursts. Maybe you even break into a cold sweat. Are you battling the symptoms of the latest influenza import? No. You're only reacting to yet another report of how a seemingly secure banking, commercial or otherwise trusted institution can't keep track of their clients' private information.

Just how vulnerable are your vital statistics? Could you be the next identity theft victim? Or, as an engineering or computer science student, are you among those that could develop impenetrable walls to protect this classified data--and restore the confidence--of every day technology users?

There are any number of industries anxiously awaiting more sophisticated electronic security systems to protect their databases, transactions and business communications. From the anatomically oriented biometrics to video imaging and even surveillance equipment, the possibilities are infinite.

And along with them come noteworthy careers for technical professionals finely versed in the evolving technology. Read on to find out what it takes to secure a career in this highly specialized genre.

A Door Left Open

It seemed as if there was an epidemic of collateral breaches earlier this year. In February ChoicePoint, a customer information clearinghouse headquartered in Alpharetta, Ga., admitted the vital data of 145,000 people were stolen. That same month Bank of America confessed it lost backup tapes containing account information on more than 1.2 million of its credit card holders. In March, the shoe retailer DSW said its stores' credit card database had been infiltrated.

The list goes on. Unfortunately, these incidents can't be linked to some hideous virus that penetrated otherwise super-insulated systems. In fact, none of the examples are connected other than they're evidence of a growing and alarming trend of vulnerable security systems.

The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit group based in San Diego, estimates that approximately four million people's identities were compromised during this spring alone.

And a survey conducted by the FBI and the San Francisco-based Computer Security Institute, an organization dedicated to the promotion of computer and networking security experts, revealed an alarming percentage of companies report an attempted breach in security every year--nearly 40% of all respondents stated they had fallen prey to system compromises for each year between 2000 and 2003.

It's not all doom and gloom, however. The increased attention on the undeniable need for better gatekeeping and other electronic security procedures is generating a demand for technical professionals. More specifically, there is a call for engineers and computer scientists who offer more than just basic code-writing skills. Indeed, companies that specialize in security product development want technical candidates with experience in access control, image processing and public key infrastructure (PKI). Additionally, corporations from
a variety of industries are seeking individuals who can develop customized applications to protect their organizations.

"There is a need for someone who can read code, follow it and then customize it, especially how it pertains to image processing, multimodal fusion and algorithms," says Jane Snipes, executive director for Northstar Recruiting Inc., a recruitment firm located in Florence, S.C. "Other areas in demand are machine learning, pattern recognition and object design."

The Time is Now

Perhaps one of the most exciting industries addressing this hot-button topic is that of biometrics. According to the International Biometrics Group, a consulting firm with offices in New York and London, biometrics is "the automated use of physiological or behavioral characteristics to determine or verify identity." In other words, it is the harnessing of an individual's unique and identifiable physical characteristic to unlock his or her identification, thereby preventing others from tapping into secured information.

Biometric technology, such as iris or thumbprint scanning, has been around for more than 30 years, but it wasn't until recently that its potential has been pushed to the forefront. "It's been quoted as the year for biometrics for each of the past 12 years," asserts Snipes. "In retrospect, however, I would say the true turning point was 2004."

That was when there was a notable shift in the momentum because the customer base took on a new face.

Throughout the industry's history, companies have focused on government as its primary clientele. There have always been opportunities to employ the technology within federal agencies, such as restricting access to classified areas. But last year, the private sector seriously began to take notice of how the technology could better guard their
architecture. Corporations were prompted to examine their layers of electronic protection and how they can be improved.

The truth, however, is that there were signs of swelling interest in biometrics as early as 2002. "That fall we started to see an increase in the request for sales engineers. That tells me somebody was selling something because you don't need sales engineers unless there are bids to work on," says Snipes.

The difference was a boost in applicability to a greater range of environments and a building wave of interest for the high-tech products. "In 2003, we started seeing an increase in the demand for engineers. These are the people who could help perfect the technology and write algorithms," says Snipes. "Companies began to target the commercial sector with some industries becoming of particular interest, including point of sale and retail, health care and financial."

Each industry employs the technology differently, but all with the goal of securing data. For example, the retail industry doesn't want its customers to question whether or not their transactions are in jeopardy because of lax security. Currently, whenever a check is written or an automated teller PIN number is punched into a keypad, a chain of possession is initiated, and each stop along the way exposes the account and identification information.

"That check contains personal information, such as a driver's license number. At least a dozen people look at that information between the point of sale and getting the check back to its owner in a bank statement," says Snipes. "When people use a biometric authentication system, such as a thumbprint, the entire transaction becomes instantaneous and exposure is limited.

"There are two elements to point-of-sale biometric use," she continues. "One is convenience and the other is security. Biometric engineers are trying to find a balance between the two."

The technology can have the same effect on corporations' security. Instead of passwords that are keyed in--and that can be hacked into--an iris scan or electronic signature clearance prohibits access to unauthorized users. This approach substantially reduces the potential for intrusion. "Biometrics is picking up speed with larger companies such as Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard and IBM," comments Snipes. "And once the technology goes mainstream, there will be a much higher demand for customized programming."

In the business environment, engineers and computer scientists customize biometric technology to meet the client's specific requirements. In other words, one size does not fit all. This is where professionals can carve out a niche for themselves. Says Snipes, "There will be an increased need for engineers who can program the technology do what the end-user wants it to do."

Additionally, Snipes says there is an evolving arena for technicians to maintain the installations. "They will keep the end-user company identity management system working."

A Web of Possibilities

Biometrics is just one element of the security market. Another hot sector is video and image processing. These technologies are employed in numerous scenarios, each of which calls for technical specialists. For example, surveillance products are quickly evolving. From retail stores' security cameras to monitor for possible shoplifters to drone planes taking pictures of enemy encampments, clients are constantly insisting that the technology do more.

Other applications include model building, 3D graphics, e-commerce imaging and simulations for military training. Video processing has even been used to catch poachers hunting during the off season in Colorado. Last year, the Colorado's Operation Game Thief (OGT) program relied on hidden video cameras with motion sensors, global positioning systems and digital voice recorders during a sting operation. And it was a success--there were several arrests.

Indeed, law enforcement agencies at all levels have become more dependent high-tech detective devices. Image processing programs can zone in on specific elements of a picture, then clarify it for better identification. Or the software can create 3D models of suspects, giving officers a highly detailed composite drawing to use as an investigative tool.

Although the job market for these specialized positions may still be small in comparison with other programming opportunities, that is changing. "If you are coming out of a master's degree or PhD program with image processing or algorithm work, have a lot of research experience and an internship in video surveillance, then your value increases in the market," says Snipes.

Securing a Position

As reports of security breaches continue to filter out, the need for skilled professionals to prevent such occurrences will grow, regardless of which technology is utilized. "It's a huge industry and the demand for people is expected to increase over the next five to ten years," Snipes notes.

The majority of these jobs right now call for advanced degrees and/or several years' experience. However, Snipes recommends graduating engineers and computer scientists seek out opportunities that will position them to make the transition into security product development. "If you can't find anything in biometrics and identity management, then look into security in general," she says. "If someone wants you to write simple codes, then do it. As the company grows, you can grow with it. Also, that experience is a great segue because it translates beautifully."

Additionally, she suggests candidates consider a sales engineer position, especially if they wish to interact with customers. This particular career path will gain importance as the private sector ups its interest in biometrics and video/image processing Specifically, this job allows technical professionals to see a complete picture. Snipes explains, "Sales engineers generally are technically astute, but they also need to be able to converse smoothly with customers. They should be able to put themselves in the customer's chair to understand what they want from a product and then translate that into technical requirements.

Although companies cannot be instantly inoculated against security leaks, as part of the future technical workforce, you could be the antibody to protect companies' databases, transactions and business communications.

Anne Baye Ericksen is a free-lance writer based in Southern California.

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