University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee



Conference highlights cybercrime research at USF Sarasota-Manatee

By Marc R. MasferrerUniversity Communications and Marketing

An international training conference on cyberfraud at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee this week highlighted the university’s expanding role in preparing students and others to meet growing cybersecurity challenges and threats.

Among the presenters at the two-day conference were campus faculty and students researching sextortion and the motivations of computer hackers; and Ernie Ferraresso, the director of the USF-based Cyber Florida, which leads the state’s cybersecurity efforts.

About 185 scholars, law enforcement officials, USF students and others attended the conference, which was organized by the International Association of Financial Crimes Investigators and co-sponsored by Sarasota Cybersecurity, Cyber Florida, the University of New Haven and USF Sarasota-Manatee.

Sarasota-Manatee Regional Chancellor Karen Holbrook opened the conference with welcoming remarks to attendees that underscored the crucial role of partnerships and student involvement in the advancement of the cybersecurity sector. 

cyber holbrook

USF Sarasota-Manatee Regional Chancellor greets attendees at a cyberfraud conference held on campus.

The Sarasota-Manatee campus is home to USF’s undergraduate cybersecurity program, which is offered by the Muma College of Business, and to Sarasota Cybersecurity, a research lab directed by C. Jordan Howell, an assistant professor of criminology in the College of Behavioral and Community Sciences. Last month, USF announced its intent to be one of the first universities in the U.S. to launch a college devoted to artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and computing.

The event showcased the innovative research at USF Sarasota-Manatee and the significant role Sarasota Cybersecurity plays in nurturing the next generation of cybersecurity professionals.

“This event was a demonstration of the shared commitment to cybersecurity and the exceptional caliber of the students on campus,” Howell said.

At USF Sarasota-Manatee, the Department of Criminology this fall also is starting a fully online concentration in criminal justice administration within the current master's in criminal justice program, tailored to empower law enforcement professionals like those at the conference with advanced knowledge and expertise in managing and leading within the criminal justice system.

Howell and Kaylee Eckelman, Sarasota Cybersecurity’s lab manager and a graduate student in the Muma College of Business, presented their research on computer hackers, their motivations and what it might take for them to use their skills in a more positive way. Much of the research is based on surveys of hackers Howell contacted through an online database that records hacking attacks. 

cyber conference

C. Jordan Howell, assistant professor of criminology, and graduate student Kaylee Eckelman, discuss research they are conducting on computer hackers.

The responses offered insights into the economic, political and other motivations of hackers; the status of their mental health and other conditions that might drive their behavior; and what it would take for them to end their illegal activity.

A highlight of the presentation was a telephone interview with “BlackPython,” a hacker who Howell has become friendly with as part of his research. BlackPython, a man in his early 20s who carried out his first hack when he was 14 and said he focuses on attacking websites, was circumspect in answering questions that might reveal his identity or information that, for example, might help some of the conference attendees thwart future attacks.

Howell said such interactions are vital to his research.

"To effectively combat hackers, we must comprehend their motivations and tactics,” he said.

Another speaker at the conference was Roberta O’Malley, an assistant professor of criminology at USF Sarasota-Manatee and co-director of Sarasota Cybersecurity. She presented her research on sextortion, a digital era phenomenon where an offender threatens to distribute intimate videos, images or information unless the victim complies with financial or other demands.

Results of a survey of more than 200 sextortion victims found that a large number of the initial contacts between victims and offenders occurred via dating apps and Instagram, where “influencers” who rely on attracting and maintaining a high number of followers to make a living, are often targeted because offenders know they cannot afford to have embarrassing information released.

O’Malley’s co-presenter, Richard Dean, assistant special agent in charge of the U.S. Secret Service’s office in Tampa, said O’Malley’s findings highlight the importance of parents keeping close tabs of the online habits of their children to prevent them from being victimized by sextortionists and other bad actors, many of whom are overseas and beyond the reach of the law.

Other topics presented at the conference, which was held in the Selby Auditorium on April 18-19, included online sexual grooming; human trafficking; ransomware; child exploitation; and the risk of fraud as the use of artificial intelligence becomes more prevalent. Presenters included law enforcement officials and industry experts.

For more information about the new master’s in criminal justice program, contact program director Jessica Grosholz at 941-359-4324 or 

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