University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee


Fall 2023

Campus Magazine

Cybersecurity lab loads up to counter online threats

Amidst an unprecedented surge in cybercrime, characterized by an alarming frequency and magnitude, the pressing need for skilled and well-trained cybersecurity professionals has reached a critical juncture. In response to growing demand, the visionary minds behind Sarasota Cybersecurity have set the stage for a revolutionary approach to combating cyber threats. Situated on the Sarasota-Manatee campus, this innovative and interdisciplinary research lab aims to propel the field of cybersecurity forward and ensure a safer digital future.

At the helm of Sarasota Cybersecurity is C. Jordan Howell, a prominent advocate for a paradigm shift in current cybersecurity approaches. Howell underscores the significance of understanding the human behavior underpinning cybercrime, emphasizing that technical defenses alone may not suffice. The lab acknowledges that a comprehensive cybersecurity strategy must delve deeper into the psyche of cybercriminals, unveiling their motivations and thought processes to predict and prevent their next moves proactively.

Ehsan Sheybani, Roberta (Birdy) O’Malley, Giti Javidi and C. Jordan  Howell are part of the team at  Sarasota Cybersecurity Lab at USF Sarasota-Manatee.

Ehsan Sheybani, Roberta (Birdy) O’Malley, Giti Javidi and C. Jordan Howell are part of the team at Sarasota Cybersecurity Lab at USF Sarasota-Manatee.

Unlike conventional cybersecurity labs that primarily focus on post-attack remedies, Sarasota Cybersecurity takes a proactive stance. Howell explained that their objective is to extract meaningful insights from relevant Big Data, identifying patterns that could indicate illicit activities. By combining this wealth of cyber-intelligence with theories of human behavior, the lab seeks to forecast emergent threats before they materialize, enabling swift intervention to prevent victimization.

The lab uses advances in technology, including cutting-edge chatbots that engage the hacker community directly, as well as neural networks and machine learning (A.I.) tools, “to extract data on a large, systematic scale that allows us to better understand the current threat landscape,” Howell said.

“The lab’s potential and success stems from the executive team,” said Howell, who has assembled an impressive group of experts across various academic disciplines, including criminology, international relations, information systems, and computer science.

The executive team at Sarasota Cybersecurity includes Assistant Professor of Criminology Roberta (Birdy) O’Malley, who investigates cyber-violence. She’s joined by Associate Professor of International Relations and Security Zacharias Pieri, an authority on international extremism and how radical groups use social media and new technology to advance their agendas. Professor of Information Systems and Decision Sciences Ehsan Sheybani provides his expertise in communication, signal processing and data analysis, alongside his School of Information Systems and Management colleague, Professor of Cybersecurity Giti Javidi, who provides expertise in design solutions for smart devices, cybersecurity incident management and generative AI 
for cybersecurity.

This interdisciplinary collaboration empowers Sarasota Cybersecurity to integrate diverse frameworks and methodologies, fostering a comprehensive understanding of cybercrime and enhancing their ability to counter its various manifestations.

Sarasota Cybersecurity has already made an impact within the cybersecurity ecosystem. By assisting banks and other institutions in identifying threats against their customers, the lab has prevented substantial financial losses within remarkably short timeframes.

However, according to Howell, the lab’s true value lies in nurturing the next generation of cybersecurity professionals. Through mentorship and practical skill-building, students are being equipped with the capabilities to tackle the complex challenges posed by cyber adversaries.

Javidi, another proven advocate of dedicated mentorship, is part of a larger USF team that recently secured a $3.7 million National Science Foundation CyberCorps grant to establish the Cybersecurity Research and Education for Service in Government (CREST) program at USF, the goal of which is to teach, support and empower the next generation of national cybersecurity leaders.  

Taylor Fisher, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Criminology, serves as a primary example of Sarasota Cybersecurity’s commitment to empowering the next generation of cybersecurity professionals. As the associate director of research, she spearheads a dynamic group of approximately 15 graduate and undergraduate students, all actively engaged in the lab’s work on malicious hackers, cyber-intelligence, forensic investigation and other captivating areas of interest.

Further testament to the impact of Sarasota Cybersecurity is provided by Roan Ali, an honors student on the Sarasota-Manatee campus. After extensive research exploring various career paths, Ali came to a profound realization that her passion lies in the realm of technology.

“Looking into the future, we can expect cybercrime to keep happening and changing shape,” said Javidi, who also directs the Applied Research Collaborative (ARC) lab on the Sarasota-Manatee campus. “Realistically, hackers will get smarter and more targeted. We’ll see more of ransomware attacks, vulnerabilities in supply chains, and attacks on new technologies such as autonomous vehicles, smart homes, and industrial control systems.

This highlights, Javidi said, the need for continuous advancements in cybersecurity defenses to keep pace with evolving threats, including closing the cybersecurity talent gap that continues to hinder the industry.

With a vision for a safer digital world and a commitment to nurturing future cybersecurity leaders, Sarasota Cybersecurity promises to remain at the forefront of shaping the future of cybersecurity for the betterment of society.

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About Sarasota-Manatee Campus Magazine

Momentum is published by USF Research and Innovation and the Office of University Communications and Marketing on the Sarasota-Manatee campus. The University of South Florida, a member of the Association of American Universities, is a high-impact research university with campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee.