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NDSTN: North Dakota's Unified Cybersecurity Strategy

Posted on Jan 31, 2020 by Therese Perlowski
Tags: Community Anchor Program, State and Regional Network Spotlight



Image courtesy of North Dakota (


Cyber attacks targeted at schools are on the rise, and, according to the K-12 Cybersecurity Resource Center, there is roughly one new incident every three days in a K12 environment. These types of attacks are particularly devastating for schools in light of the volume of sensitive personal data stored on students’ devices. Enabling innovation across the state,  North Dakota’s Statewide Technology Access for Government and Education Network (STAGEnet), connects 181 K12 school districts with over 112,000 students. In working with such a large network of K12 districts and stakeholders, cyber security is top of mind for North Dakota’s Information Technology (NDIT) team.

“There's something to be said for little North Dakota, our size and our culture here, we work together and get things done." —
Duane Schell, North Dakota Chief Technology Officer.

North Dakota Chief Technology Officer Duane Schell recognizes that growing threat. “We believe it's our moral responsibility to be better than the private sector in how we execute on cybersecurity,” he said. “We aim to be the best.” Accordingly, North Dakota is creating and implementing a unified cybersecurity strategy to mature its security operations, fill the cybersecurity talent pipeline, and implement cyber education to every student as a foundational 21st century skill.

In April 2019 North Dakota did something no other state has done – its governor signed legislation to unify the state's cybersecurity approach across all branches of government to bolster expertise and holistically improve the state's cyber posture. As a part of this effort, NDIT is making significant strides in maturing its security operations center, working with stakeholders to help assess risk and security needs, and collaborating with private sector partners to create one of the most automated security operation centers in the world.  

To gather information for an informed future strategy, NDIT's security team is completing maturity assessments across 600 public entities that include school districts and local governments to benchmark current operations and gain a better understanding of what needs to come next. “Ultimately, we hope this culminates in a single strategy, a single vision on how to execute on cybersecurity and leverage the talent that exists at our research universities and within our office to create a collective pool of resources to help everybody,” Schell explained.

One of the clearest barriers in the cybersecurity space is the lack of a talent pipeline. “Cybersecurity is also a field where we have millions of jobs open in this country and growing. Finding people that have that skill set is challenging and, as we look across all of our stakeholders, whether it be government or education, very few, if any, have dedicated cybersecurity resources,” Schell highlights. “In as complex of a field of study as cybersecurity is, that simply doesn’t cut it.” At the collegiate level, he said, “almost every campus is working in some way, shape, or form to augment their campus leverage computer and cyber science curriculums.”

Affirming the pressing need for cybersecurity awareness and a more robust talent pipeline, North Dakota Information Technology played a key role in convening the North Dakota governor, the superintendent of public instruction, and the North Dakota University System chancellor and other stakeholders to begin developing solutions. This meeting acted as a catalyst to the creation of the K-20W Initiative with the goal of providing cyber education to every student and every school. One of the first achievements was the implementation of statewide, integrated computer science and cybersecurity standards that were ratified last October. 

More than 1,000 teachers across the state now are trained on teaching the cybersecurity curriculum, making huge steps toward developing a more cyber-informed workforce. “Whether you choose to be a doctor, plumber, lawyer, or farmer, there is no job today where technology isn't part of the job. Having a more cyber-educated workforce, regardless of their academic discipline, is essential,” Schell said.

And the momentum is growing. This week, Gov. Burgum announced a first-of-its-kind, technology focused career expo, Dakota Strike. Being held at the Fargodome on April 8, this unique, multi-industry event brings together many of the K-20W partners including military, public service and private sector organizations that are all being impacted by rapid technological change. The event aims to connect employers with students in grades 7 – 12 and college with jobs reflecting the vibrant economy and thousands of job openings in the state.

Gov. Burgum is also hosting a Cybersecurity Education and Diversity Summit at Bismarck State College on April 20. The event will feature cybersecurity partners Girl Scouts of the USA and Palo Alto Networks for an engaging look at the challenges and opportunities around building the talent pipeline and helping set all of North Dakota’s students up for success.

Beyond creating safe connections for its K12 community, NDIT and its partners are actively empowering the communities they serve to equip a more cybersecure future. Schell credits much of its success to effective collaboration and strong partnerships. “There's something to be said for little North Dakota, our size and our culture here, we work together and get things done,” he said. "It’s a really important piece of who we are and what we do.”


Network Statistics: NDSTN (North Dakota State Telecommunciatons Network)
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Community Anchor Program Member since: 2001
19 universities and community colleges
4 non-profit resaerch institutions
439 K-12 schools
94 libraries
52 healthcare institutions
190 museums, science centers, aquariums, zoos, etc.
44 public media stations
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