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Graduate Student Granted $7K Prize for Cybersecurity Project

Abdullah Alrashidi’s cyber range is a tool for education and training in his native Saudi Arabia

Abdullah Alrashidi

Abdullah Alrashidi, a graduate student at Sacred Heart University seeking his master’s degree in cybersecurity, recently received $7,000 for his continuing efforts to create a cyber range—a type of training environment—to localize cybersecurity training and enhance cyber skills in his native Saudi Arabia. He has named the tool Saudi Arabia Cyber or SACyber.

“I want this to be a leader in local training, to help minimize the effect of cyberattacks in the kingdom,” Alrashidi said. “Many of the cyber ranges available are too extensive for education uses at universities and for small- and medium-sized businesses. My cyber range attempts to solve that.”

A cyberrange is a virtual environment used for cyberwarfare training and cybertechnology development, providing tools to help strengthen the stability, security and performance of cyberinfrastructures and IT systems.

The need for cybersecurity continues to grow–and not only in the U.S., where this year alone major security breaches took place at Capital One, Facebook and Quest Diagnostics.

Alrashidi noted that Saudi Arabia suffers the highest number of cyberattacks in the Middle East, with more than 160,000 hitting servers every day.

Even though Saudi Arabia is seen as one of the more technologically advanced nations in the region, a policy study conducted by the Washington-based Global Foundation for Cyber Studies and Research found that a lack of local training courses, as well as general unawareness of the dangers posed by cyberattacks, are leaving the kingdom dangerously exposed–something Alrashidi wants to change with his cyber range.

At the suggestion of his thesis advisor Sajal Bhatia, assistant professor and director of cybersecurity at Sacred Heart’s School of Computer Science and Engineering, Alrashidi participated in the SABIC Entrepreneurship Award competition, which aims to assist ambitious Saudi entrepreneurs by giving them resources to succeed in their aspirations.

The competition is a collaboration between Riyadh-based SABIC, one of the world’s largest petrochemicals manufacturers, and the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission (SACM) in the U.S.

Alrashidi’s proposal was one of 160 submitted from around the globe. About two months after entering, he was informed that his proposal for SACyber had reached the top 35. He traveled to Houston in August for a one-week entrepreneurship bootcamp to work on the business-side of his proposal, including finance, marketing and development of a business model.

“I wasn’t expecting that,” Alrashidi says. “Learning about what I needed to do to make it work was a great experience.”

SACyber advanced again after the boot camp, when his project attained the top 10. He flew to Washington, D.C. to meet with Mohammed Al-Eissa, the Saudi Arabian attaché to the U.S., and SABIC CEO Yousef Al-Benyan, to present his final pitch.

Though Alrashidi didn’t make that cut, Al-Benyan was impressed enough to award him $7,000 to support his research.

Alrashidi plans to use that sum to complete his cyber range and return to Saudi Arabia to work at SABIC or any company to develop and initiate his project. Coincidentally, he spent four months working as an intern at SABIC subsidiary Yansab, the company’s largest petrochemical complex, in 2017 in the midst of earning his bachelor’s degree in computer science at the University of Indianapolis.

Alrashidi said he was drawn to SHU because “they have a great cybersecurity program. Cybersecurity is evolving, and its impact on the economy worldwide will continue to grow.”

He also expressed his admiration for Bhatia, who, he said, “has helped me so much in exploring the idea of developing a low-cost cyber range that can be used to enhance cybersecurity skills and in-turn address the acute scarcity of skilled workforce. I think that, when I’m done, this will make a major impact on cybersecurity education and training in Saudi Arabia.”