Geek with Teeth

James Brown

James Brown thrives on the front lines of cybersecurity

Colleges and universities have emerged as advantageous targets for globalized black hats, organized e-criminals and state-sponsored cyber thieves. Modern hackers are not basement-bound loners with self-built laptops, but sophisticated teams of professionals bent on making serious money by swiping intellectual property, research data, confidential information and bundled identities. Some hackers, or hacktivists, simply wish to incite mayhem via denial-of-service assaults, website defacement or malicious object infections, the latter also known as worms, viruses and Trojans.

According to a recent article in The New York Times, research universities in the U.S. experience millions of hacking attempts on a weekly basis, the bulk of the attacks coming from the People’s Republic of China. Bill Mellon, associate dean for research policy at the University of Wisconsin, noted: “We get 90,000 to 100,000 attempts per day, from China alone, to penetrate our system. There are also a lot from Russia, and recently a lot from Vietnam, but it’s primarily China.”

Attacks are not confined to large research institutions. In April 2013, nearly 2.5 million students, staff and faculty at 10 colleges in the Maricopa Community College District in Arizona may have had their personal information hacked. That cybersecurity debacle spotlighted the potential vulnerability of computer networking systems on college campuses across the nation.

For a detailed, statistical look at virulent cyber activity worldwide, check out the Kaspersky Security Bulletin 2013.

James Brown, a network administrator, or ITS3, at Inver Hills Community College, is no stranger to the constantly evolving, 24/7 threat posed by complex cyberattacks. James works to thwart this crush of hostile intrusions every day on the job. That crush includes dedicated hacker groups in China and Eastern Bloc countries that perpetually scan the entire Internet in search of network and computer weaknesses.

“Colleges keep the personal information of a lot of people,” he said. “Criminals know that and try to break into networks. They want social security numbers, birth dates and credit card information, anything they can get their hands on. The bad guys are always thinking up new ways to attack—and the good guys never stop creating new ways to stop them.”

That means putting in firewalls and running anti-malware and anti-virus software on staff and faculty workstations. That also means following a defense-in-depth strategy, which involves installing multiple layers of security controls throughout an IT system. Having an overall security system in place that filters information by level of importance is critical because human beings are not capable of tracking data on such immense scales.

Helping students, particularly underserved students, learn how to protect their technology investment is a priority for James Brown. He pointed out that students are big into BYOD, or bring your own device, and at any given time as many as 2,000 mobile devices are on campus. Students can take advantage of the college’s wireless network using SafeConnect. They can also visit the IT Service Desk in the IT Center and learn how to install anti-virus software on their devices. James advises students to set up their computers, including their anti-virus software, to install updates automatically.

Another way James and Inver Hills IT are defending against the relentless cyber offensive is through a collaborative effort within the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.

“IT departments across MnSCU have been collaborating for years,” James said. “I get together with security geeks from several other MnSCU schools and the system office, and we brainstorm imaginative ways to protect campuses. We find ways to apply effective risk management with budget considerations. I really enjoy that work. We have spirited debates and it’s fun helping out smaller colleges with limited IT resources.”

James added that the MnSCU IT Group proposes and drafts system-wide IT security policies, procedures and guidelines that are approved by the MnSCU Board of Trustees.

Network engineering and playing hard ball with hackers wasn’t the path James Brown originally set for himself. A native of Duluth, Minn., he grew up on a farm where his family raised beef cattle and grew their own food. He graduated from Proctor High School in 1990 and went on to earn a B.A. in Biology with a focus in genetics and microbiology from The College of St. Scholastica.

“I’ve always loved science,” he said. “I still follow scientific developments for fun.”

James worked in retail management for a time and discovered a knack for fixing broken digital cash registers. Eventually, he landed in an IT program at Inver Hills. He took 20 credits a semester for two semesters, attended the Cisco Networking Academy on campus, and earned an A.A.S. degree in Data Communications and Networking. Toward the end of his degree, he completed a three-month summer internship in the college’s IT department. Mark Peterson, the department’s director then and now, liked the new intern’s work and hired James full-time as an ITS1.

Over the course of 2001 and 2002, using the training he received at Inver Hills, James built a computer network system for the whole campus. The new system was much faster and far more reliable. As with any large-scale network, continual upgrades are obligatory.

James reported that his wife, Laura, is also an Inver Hills graduate. Laura earned an A.A. and then attended the College of Pharmacy at the University of Minnesota, earning her Pharm.D. James and Laura’s son, Ramine, 20, was a PSEO student at Inver Hills. He is now a student at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif.

“We’re an Inver Hills family,” James said.

Marathon rollerblading is one of James’ favorite pastimes. He also home-brews mead, a honey-based wine. “Making mead takes a good year,” he said. “When I get impatient, I brew beer. That only takes six weeks.”

James takes the pressures of network security in stride, partly because he is extremely good at his job and partly because he has total confidence in his coworkers. “I like the people in my department and our management team,” he said. “I have a ton of respect for Mark Peterson. He is well respected in the MnSCU system. Mark’s about collaboration.”

James knows information technology is an up-and-down world. When things run right you’re heroes, but when things crash, people get upset. For IT pros, that’s a given. So is a passion for their field.

“I love working in IT—it’s a blast,” James said. “I am a geek and proud.”

For more information about the IT department at Inver Hills Community College, contact:
For more information about Information Technology programs at Inver Hills, contact:

1 Comment

  • Mark Peterson says:

    It is important to understand that Information Technology professionals like James can only do so much to protect the data that is collected, stored, managed and used by the college as we work to serve students.

    The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article on March 17 that highlights the impact of data breaches. It is important to note that an Indiana University breach was caused by a staff error that left information on 146,000 students exposed for 11 months. If that staff member wasn’t part of the IT department there was probably little the IT department could have done to prevent the breach.

    http://chronicle.com/article/Data-Breaches-Put-a-Dent-in/145341/?cid=cc&utm_source=cc&utm_medium=en

    -Mark Peterson, Director of Information Technology Services/CIO

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