ABU DHABI // Amid a spate of computer attacks on global players such as Sony and the International Monetary Fund, experts say the UAE needs to bolster its cyber-security through academic partnerships with industry.
First and foremost, they say, there is an urgent need for research into digital forensics and encryption technology.
Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi has begun research with the security companies Cassidian, a division of European Aerospace and Defence Systems, and Emiraje Systems, a security company in the capital that develops defence and security information systems.
Students in the university's master's course in information security, launched last year, will have access to guest lecturers from the industry. That should help them to form key contacts and make them far more employable.
"For Khalifa University such partnerships, not only in this field, are very important," said Dr Andrew Jones, who is heading the department. "It's a young university and now we're looking at who we want to play with in the security field as well as other areas."
It is also a prime opportunity for the students, whether they want to stay in academia or work for companies such as banks or telecommunications providers.
"It prepares them for a future in academia, a future in industry and gives them a wider perspective than simply the academic one," Dr Jones said.
In turn, industry gets first pick of the local talent, as well as the benefits of joint research with a dedicated team that includes master's students and seven PhD students.
"We get to build relationships with customers or potential customers," said the head of business development at Cassidian, Andrew Warnes.
"We get to find out what they really need and we are seen as more credible in the local market."
The most popular with the 13 students is digital forensics - appealing for those hoping to work in law enforcement - and cryptology, more suited for those interested in banking or government work.
"Digital forensics is seen as fun and exciting," said Dr Jones. The course was designed to meet the UAE's needs, developing expertise and local talent.
Vulnerable areas include infrastructure and utilities. Because they have a long life-cycle, often being in operation for decades, much of the equipment was not designed to cope with today's online security challenges.
"They were built with very primitive security," said Dr Jones.
Abu Dhabi Police and the Ministry of Interior have also begun to address the lack of expertise, supporting the master's programmes in cyber security at Zayed University, which saw its first graduates last year, and in information security at Khalifa University.
Lt Col Faisal al Shamari, the chief information security officer at Abu Dhabi Police, said cyber-security is one of Abu Dhabi's biggest hurdles. "The knowledge gap is a challenging issue whether we want to admit it or not," he said, adding that partnerships between academia and industry were helping to close that gap.
In January, the Nato secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, warned that cyber threats were growing both in frequency and sophistication.
In 2007, the first known case of cyber warfare occurred when Russia froze Estonia's infrastructure, including banks and government agencies, through remote computer access after Estonia removed a symbolic Soviet war memorial.
More recently in Iran, the mysterious Stuxnet virus disrupted nuclear activities at the Bushehr plant.