CMU receives $5 million in scholarships for grad students in cybersecurity

You’ve probably heard of the Marine Corps, the infantry wing of the United States Navy, travelling across land, sea, and sky to kill people, but the CyberCorps might be a little less well-known. That might change soon, with the recent $5 million National Science Foundation (NSF) renewal to the CyberCorps Scholarship for Service Program at Carnegie Mellon University (SFS@CMU).

The program, according to the Carnegie Mellon CyLab website, covers all or part of tuition, room and board, and books for up to two years of graduate studies, while also providing an annual stipend of $34,000. In return, the students are required to do an internship with a government agency and work for the government for at least two years following their graduation. If a student does not finish their degree in two years or leaves the post-gradation position before their time is up, they must pay back the scholarship money for the time they didn’t serve. This means that if a student leaves, say, a year into their government job, they are required to pay back $34,000, plus a year’s tuition, room and board, and books, to the SFS Program Office.

The ethics of locking students into government contracts in order to afford the rapidly inflating costs of higher education are concerning, but these scholarships are a common way to draw highly-skilled students into public service.

According to a university press release, Carnegie Mellon “has received approximately $25.8 million through the SFS program and graduated 210 SFS students who have gone on to work for the CIA, FBI, NSA and…other government organizations.”

This program is another example of the close relationship Carnegie Mellon has with the federal government, with $172 million in $172 million in direct funding to the university coming from the Department of Defense in 2017, as well as the university’s close relationships to military contractors like the RAND Corporation.

The cybersecurity focused program, according to an SFS factsheet, is a partnership between the NSF and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to “attract students to the cybersecurtiy [sic]/information assurance fields.” While “cybersecurity” might sound like a defensive occupation, the Trump administration’s national cybersecurity strategy included “authorizing offensive cyber operations against foreign adversaries,” according to an article published this year in The Washington Post.

The sponsorship of DHS means that students may work on projects like the installation of facial recognition systems at the border, which capture the “facial biometrics of travelers entering and departing the United States,” raising ethical questions about governmental surveillance.

The National Security Administration (NSA), one of the employers cited in the university press release as a potential employer for students in the SFS program, is also involved in massive data collection programs. These programs, such as the mass collection of United State citizens’ phone records and mining personal data from private servers, received substantial criticism when the news broke in 2013.

The NSA’s data collection programs have only accelerated since then, with the NSA collecting “more than 534 million records of phone calls and text messages,” in 2017, a threefold increase over 2016, according to The Washington Post. The SFS@CMU program does require that students take a single ethics course, but it is questionable how effective this single course will be in combatting the continued expansion of such programs.

While the students do have their choice of government agencies to work for, many may be drawn into projects like these, making choices that negatively affect the privacy and lives of millions. Scholarships like SFS demonstrate the necessity of expanding ethics education for students who have to make lasting choices about what they want to do, and inevitably end up in positions where the systems they build greatly affect the world.