Master of Information Assurance Degree

By Woodrow Aames

Master of information assurance degree programs may train students in the standardized security protocols so they may step into the IA field with confidence. Information assurance experts may create and oversee measures that protect data systems against compromise.

In a nutshell, information assurance specialists provide the critical line of protection for the nation's government, military, financial, health care and business networks. Enterprise hardware and software networks are vulnerable to attacks that affect system-wide confidentiality, operational availability, authentication and integrity. IA professionals may safeguard against intrusions as well as may also create protocols that detect, block and react to threats while providing restoration measures.

Pursuing a Master of Information Assurance

The National Security Agency has created criteria for information assurance program standards, along with setting the knowledge bar for up-and-coming specialists. Graduate coursework in IA may vary by institution, but general concepts center on the following topics:

  1. Applied cryptography
  2. Computer forensics
  3. Digital rights
  4. Enterprise application architecture and security
  5. Ethics
  6. Security risk management
  7. Wireless security

In addition to classroom lectures, students may often take labs in which they simulate attacks and perform forensic investigations. Master's programs may prepare students to sit for the CISSP--Certified Information System Security Professional certification exam. Many programs are organized under Committee on National Security Systems, or CNSS, regulations and may prepare graduates to meet the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. National Security Agency CNSS 4011-4015 certification.

Enrollment prerequisites may vary by institution but typically require at least a bachelor's degree in computer science, information technology, network administration, computer security, engineering or programming. Time to degree may vary as well based on whether the course is held on campus or online.

Career options in information assurance and security

Information security specialists may seek work in a variety of careers. Graduates may become system managers, take jobs in a specialized IA field, or find an employer looking for someone with their precise credentials. Some may work for a government agency--like the Department of Homeland Security or the Central Intelligence agency--defending against cyber warfare. Some may join financial institutions with an eye toward protecting against hackers or information phishing. Still others enter law enforcement agencies at the Federal, state and local levels to perform forensic sleuthing or develop data security measures. Related job titles include these:

  • Computer security specialist
  • Computer scientist
  • Database administrator
  • Information assurance security professional
  • Network systems and data communications analyst
  • Security consultant

Salaries may vary by employer and are often tied to the candidate's education, experience, security certifications, governmental clearance and specializations. The BLS reports the following 2010 median annual earnings for these related positions:

  • Network and computer systems administrators: $69,160
  • Computer systems analysts: $77,740
  • Computer and information systems managers: $115,780

Famous degree-holders in computer security

Some former computer security students help the nation secure its digital borders and capture criminals; these professionals are called "white hat" hackers. Cyber criminals are known as "black hat" hackers. Here are some famous and notorious examples of security specialists:

  • Robert Tappan Morris. Morris, a Ph.D. from Harvard, made a fortune designing software. But before that, while a grad student at Cornell, black hatter Morris built a "worm" that attacked the Internet. He was fined and spent three years on probation for what he termed "an experiment."
  • Ronald L. Rivest. Rivest is the Viterbi Professor of Computer Science in MIT's Dept. of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. He is a founder of RSA Data Security, a security partner for more than 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies.
  • Tsutomu Shimomura. Nobel laureate Shimomura is a scholar and physicist at University of California at San Diego. The former staff physicist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory is more famous for helping in the pursuit and arrest of cyber-criminal Kevin Mitnick.
  • Richard Stallman. Stallman is the legendary hacker who quit the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory to found the GNU Project in an effort to create free operating system software.

Online master's degree programs in information assurance may offer the opportunity to gain an advanced degree while continuing professional activity and accumulating experience in the field. The Department of Labor's O*NET website shows a bright outlook for specialists in computer security.

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