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Interviews

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Professor Michael Pittaro has 26 years of criminal justice field and administrative experience working with criminal offenders in a variety of settings; predominantly within the Pennsylvania Department of corrections.

Professor Pittaro has authored more than a dozen undergraduate and graduate book and/or scholarly journal publications as well as the United States’ first and only criminal justice quick study reference guide (35,000 + copies sold to date). His first publication, Crimes of the Internet, an anthology of cybercrime research, has sold worldwide and led to the development of an undergraduate cybercrime course via Savant Learning.

Michael Pittaro
Photo: American Public University

In addition to teaching and writing, Professor Pittaro also serves as a member on the International Editorial Advisory Board for the International Journal of Criminal Justice Sciences and the International Journal of Cyber Criminology. In addition, he serves as a peer reviewer for the United States Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Programs and a program committee member for the South Asian Society of Criminology and Victimology.

First of all, hello and thank you for taking the time to talk to us!

Could you briefly tell us a bit about your area of expertise and the work you’ve been involved in?

 

Pittaro:  My background is in prison administration; however, I have always been intrigued with the various criminological explanations as to why some people engage in crime whereas others do not.  While working within the prison system, I became intrigued with sexual offenders in particular since they are a unique type of criminal offender group. Sex offending crosses all gender, racial, ethnic, religious, and social class boundaries. Since human trafficking is associated with sexual offending and victimization, I naturally gravitated toward this as one of my many research interests.

 

It cannot be emphasized enough that transnational human trafficking is one of the fastest growing criminal industries in the world and the second largest. Some studies suggest that if not curtailed, it may become the number one criminal industry in the world.

 

I want my students to adopt a victim-centered approach by learning all that human trafficking entails and teach them how to look beyond the obvious when they approach a situation that could, in fact, be an incident involving human trafficking. I always emphasize the importance of prevention through education and awareness so that as a society we can reduce the percentage of those trafficked. For me, it starts in the classroom so that the next generation of criminal justice professionals can tackle this growing international crime.

 

Speaking of criminal justice, what advice would you give to someone wanting to develop a career in this field? What type of formal education should be followed, and what skills are employers typically looking for?

 

Pittaro: Ever since I could remember, I had a tremendous interest in criminal justice. I believe that those who are the most successful in this field tend to be individuals who exhibit a passion and commitment to not just addressing crime, but the social problems that directly and indirectly contribute to crime.  Contemporary crime is undeniably complex and so determination and the ability to think outside the box are qualities that we admire and respect within the criminal justice field.

 

While an associate degree in criminal justice can lead to some entry-level positions, I strongly encourage those who are interested in pursuing a career in criminal justice to obtain a bachelor’s degree, which is the foundation for most professional entry-level positions.

 

In addition to pursuing their education, I strongly recommend that students create and maintain a strong network of connections. I encourage my students to create a professional profile on LinkedIn and to join professional criminal justice groups.

I also encourage students to volunteer by serving on an advisory board and to join and participate in professional organizations that align with their career interests.  For example, a student who wants to pursue a career in law enforcement should consider becoming a member of the International Association of Chiefs of Police and other similar organizations and, if time and money allow, attend an annual conference.

 

Lastly, I am fond of job shadowing. The best way to learn about a particular position is to shadow someone for a day or two who works in that position. In my experience, criminal justice professionals are willing to share their experiences with students and they can provide a realistic glimpse into the profession by illuminating both the pros and cons of the job.

 

Most, if not all, criminal justice employers would agree is that critical thinking is a highly sought after skill.  Trust your intuition, which is often the culmination of your education and experience.  For example, if the situation does not “feel” right, go with that feeling and start digging deeper.

 

In addition to critical thinking, employers want candidates who exhibit exceptional interpersonal communication skills – the ability to speak in front of others and to articulate your thoughts clearly and concisely. Criminal justice professionals wear many hats. One moment you are talking to a suspect, the next moment it is a victim, and then ordinary everyday citizens and your supervisor.  Writing skills are also highly sought out qualities within our profession because every incident is documented and permanently recorded and subject to scrutiny during investigations and criminal trials.

 

Lastly, ethics and professionalism go hand-in-hand.  We live in a world where brains over brawn is preferred.  The ability to de-escalate a potentially volatile situation through verbal directives is highly valued within our profession and will likely minimize the potential for a lawsuit.

 

How the working environment in criminal justice? You see all these things in the movie… but reality is often different.

 

Pittaro: Perception is everything.  Sadly, the media (television and the movies) have created what we refer to as the “CSI effect.”  Hollywood tends to glamorize and sensationalize our profession and exacerbate the amount of violence that one encounters. For example, on the television show “Law and Order,” the good guys win most of the time, but in reality the criminal trial can be long, tedious, and the prosecution doesn’t always get the desired verdict.

 

The profession requires a great deal of report writing and providing oral testimony.  The gun battles and car chases that occur on television do occur, but not nearly as often as depicted. Television and the movies also portray a lot of corruption; statistically speaking, most criminal justice professionals have a strong ethical foundation and most go above and beyond the call of duty.

 

Speaking of CSI movies, do you think they are doing a favor promoting investigators, or do they have a negative effect by distorting reality?

 

Pittaro:  Crime shows, movies, and books are intended to grab attention and maintain it. The emphasis is on the constant adrenaline-rushing drama is contrary to what real-life criminal justice professionals encounter.

 

I am a realist and I highlight the strengths and weaknesses of this profession, dismantle the myths that many students hold, and teach them to think and respond as scholar-practitioners with an open mind by embracing critical thinking and the ability to actively listen to and scrutinize all sides of a story.  It is important that students recognize their personal and professional biases and put them aside when they are on the job.

 

You’ve taught criminal justice both on campus and online. What is the difference between the two types of teaching?

 

Pittaro: I continue to teach both on-campus and online, but prefer teaching online.  Contrary to what many people think, online learning requires self-discipline and is often fast-paced so students must hone their time management skills. The flexibility of being able to complete your work anywhere in the world with Internet access and when it is most convenient for the student is definitely attractive.

 

As a single dad, I chose to pursue my doctorate degree online.  The flexibility afforded to a working adult, single parent, and/or active military student is very much appreciated and valued.  Online students tend to be non-traditional– they are often older, working full-time, caring for their families, and/or serving our country. On-campus universities tend to consist of traditional students fresh out of high school while online students have often “been there – done that” so they tend to be more proactive as opposed to reactive when it comes to completing their work.

 

You’ve written numerous popular books. What are the must-reads (that you have authored, and not only)? In other words, what are the books someone who wants to work in the field just has to read?

 

Pittaro: I believe that it is important for students go beyond textbooks to acquire knowledge. There are dozens of peer-reviewed scholarly journal databases for our field. I have authored a number of peer-reviewed journal articles and continue to serve on the editorial advisory board for the International Journal of Criminal Justice Sciences.  Journals are intended to contribute to the science of the field; therefore, consulting academic journal databases would be preferred over textbooks.

 

Introductory textbooks often cover a wealth of information about a particular topic.  I personally enjoy all the university-level textbooks authored by Dr. Frank Schmalleger, who has become a friend and my mentor on many projects.  His books are well received by university students.

 

How do you feel the emergence of online education (both free and for profit) is affecting formal education?

 

Pittaro: Online education, for the most part, attracts non-traditional students.  For example, when I decided to go back for a doctorate degree, two universities offered Ph.D.s in criminal justice–Rutgers University in Newark, N.J. and Temple University in Philadelphia, Penn.  Both are prestigious universities for criminal justice, but were two hours from my home. More importantly, some of the courses started in mid-day, which would be impossible for someone like me, a working adult with children. I opted to pursue my degree online and have never regretted that decision. In addition to easier access, I feel that online universities tend to have more vision and tend to create and implement courses that most traditional universities do not offer.

 

Most online universities hire instructors who have real-life experience and have held high-level administrative positions within the field. This strengthens learning because these instructors can offer sound advice and suggestions so that students are equipped with advanced knowledge when they enter the profession.

 

As a personal curiosity, could you give me some information regarding the status of social media (Facebook, Twitter etc) as evidence in a legal trial? 

 

Pittaro: I am a big proponent of social media. Like everything, it can have a darker side. I advise my students that criminal justice employers do review the candidates’ social media accounts during the background investigation.

 

Pictures, in particular, are scrutinized by background investigators and are subject to interpretation. I tell my students to avoid controversial discussions and pictures and to clean up their social media accounts when they are looking for advancement in the profession.

 

Regarding the second part of the question, I can confirm that investigators are accessing social media as part of criminal and civil investigations and this evidence can be incredibly damaging to the suspect. For example, there was a recent story in which a young male robbed a bank and then posted a selfie on a bed with all the money around him. We have also witnessed videos of physical assaults, which can be quite effective in investigating crimes and securing a conviction.

 

What is something that you think most people don’t know about criminal justice? 

 

Pittaro: Most people do not realize that the criminal justice profession goes well beyond law enforcement, the courts, and corrections. A bachelor’s degree in criminal justice opens the door to opportunities at the local, state, and federal levels of government and in the private and non-profit sectors. Criminal justice is not just about enforcing the laws and protecting the public, but is also about preventing crime from occurring.

 

More importantly, everyone has a story. The overwhelming majority of offenders are influenced by biological, psychological, environmental, and sociological forces that have either pulled or pushed them into that lifestyle. No child has ever said that they wanted to grow up and become a prostitute, a robber, or an addict. I want my students to have empathy.  The safety and security of the community is paramount, but everyone has a story.

 

I share stories with my students, like the story of a prostitute who was incarcerated when I worked for the Department of Corrections.  After getting to know her, she told me that her stepfather had started sexually and physically assaulting her when she was only 11 years old.  Like most female victims of physical and sexual abuse, she turned to drugs and alcohol to escape and repress those memories. This young woman was a victim of abuse and if the stepfather had never been in her life, there is a chance (in my opinion) that she would have become an entirely different person. What makes this story even sadder is that she died at 26 years old of a drug overdose and was buried in the county cemetery with a small placard that included only a series of numbers, no name.

 

That is a story that I tell my students to emphasize that people like her felt that they had no way out and no other choice.  While the decision to engage in drug use was indeed a bad one, I believe we can all understand why she made that choice.

 

Is there anything else that you feel anyone interested in criminal justice should know? Feel free to add anything at all!

 

Pittaro:  Begin by researching the profession that interests you and do not base your knowledge of the position on what has been depicted on television or in the movies.  Lean on your professors for career advice and guidance.  Our job is not just to teach the subject matter, but also to help you to succeed and advance through the ranks.

 

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Cybersecurity is an important topic in today’s political and security climate. Our staff recently had a Q&A with Dr. Clay Wilson, a leading cybersecurity analyst.

About Dr. Wilson:

clay-wilson
Photo: American Public University

Dr. Clay Wilson is the Program Director for Cybersecurity graduate studies at the American Public University, where he has responsibility for designing new courses. He is past Program Director for Cybersecurity Policy at the University of Maryland University College (UMUC), where he oversaw development of new graduate-level courses. Dr. Wilson is also a former analyst for national defense policy at the Congressional Research Service where he analyzed cyber intelligence reports for the U.S. Congress and NATO committees on net-centric warfare, cybersecurity, nanotechnology, and other vulnerabilities of high-technology military systems and critical infrastructures.

Dr. Wilson is a member of the Landau Network Centro Volta, International Working Group, an organization that studies issues for non-proliferation of CBRN and Cyber Weapons. He has moderated panels for the National Nuclear Security Administration on nonproliferation for Cyber Weapons in Como, Italy, and has presented at the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association in Beijing. He has also presented at the US Defense Cyber Investigations Training Academy, at the US National Defense University on the topic of cybercrime, and at the Cyber Conflict Studies Association on the cyber capabilities of terrorist groups. Other projects involved research and training for Abu Dhabi government officials on computer security and network technology for defense and crisis management while living in the United Arab Emirates. He received his PhD from George Mason University.

  1. Could you briefly tell us a bit about your area of expertise and the work you’ve been involved in?

Cybersecurity technology will continue to evolve at a rapid pace, and the policy required to manage its uses will always lag. Network technology has evolved to enable small groups or individual extremists to send malicious attacks through the internet that can disrupt nations and bypass traditional military protections. I have been fortunate to work with congress, NATO, and the US military by reporting on some of the vulnerabilities found in technologies for new weapon systems and the possible levels of risk to our national security. Individuals and businesses have a responsibility to protect their cyber security at the local level. I have been able to influence law makers to give more attention to designing policy for better management of new technologies.

  1. From what I’ve read, you’ve been in the field for quite a while… how did Cybersecurity change over the years? How do you think it will look like years from now?

In the very early days, computer facilities were often unlocked and open. Then, people could tour facilities with their friends and look at the fancy lights on the systems. Today, we recognize that these systems are so important to every industry and government service that they must be carefully protected along with the data that is processed. Computer facilities were once considered to be only a domain for technologists. Cybersecurity is now considered an important management issue. Positions now have titles such as CIO and Information Security Officer, with top management responsibilities.

  1. Are there any developments in particular which you think will change Cybersecurity?

Technology will certainly continue to evolve and new services and conveniences will emerge in ways we cannot entirely imagine. For example, today we have wearable devices that can record biological signals, which are then transmitted through the network to central databases where they can be observed and monitored by doctors who are located great distances away. This is a wonderful development that can improve the health of many people around the world.  Doctors who work entirely through the internet will no longer need to be nearby, or even in the same country, to manage individual health care.  However, this new convenience also offers new opportunities for malicious actors to cause disruption. Society will need to find ways for cybersecurity to protect the health and privacy of citizens around the world.

  1. What would you advise someone wanting to develop a career in Cybersecurity? What should he or she seek to learn, what skills should be developed? In other words, if you were hiring someone, what would you like to see?

Most companies today are looking for cybersecurity technology workers with the skills to understand and operate newer technologies. There is a strong need for network administrators and systems analysts who can help detect the complex and subtle intrusions where hackers and malicious code try to sneak quietly into computer systems hosting sensitive data. These skills are important for maintaining national security, and well as corporate security. There is also a need to protect against loss of proprietary intellectual property due to deception and cyber espionage, whether coming from other countries or industry competitors. Cyberattacks are now also directed against end users who can be deceived into revealing their user IDs and passwords. Technology by itself often cannot protect against this type of cyberattack.  Cybersecurity policy workers provide instructions to users and organizations about methods for best practices to prevent users from mistakenly allowing threat actors to hijack computer systems and steal sensitive data.  Cybersecurity policy analysts also attempt to manage interactions between organizations and countries as they share commerce and communications over the internet.

  1. Are you a fan of formal education all the way, or do you believe that in order to become really good, you have to study and practice a lot on your own?

All cybersecurity practitioners need a background that makes them familiar with some of the technologies used for computer operations, or used in software programming. Personnel with cybersecurity responsibilities need to have similar understandings about the basics of computers and software whenever they are required to work together to solve cybersecurity problems. The best way to gain a strong background in the basics is to obtain direct experience working with the computer or programming technologies and then supplement that experience with formal education where the theories behind these technologies are explored and researched. Some very talented individuals are able to bypass the requirement for a formal education because of their intense devotion and focus on developing their skills by using the technology. Law enforcement often hires hackers because these are the people who have the best knowledge about what to look for when there is a need to investigate a computer intrusions or data theft.

  1. You’ve worked at the highest level, with the US Congress and NATO. If you can, please describe the type of work typically involved in the day-to-day work (what kind of attacks you have to face, how you improve security principally, etc).

Cybersecurity is gradually being recognized as a global problem, not just one that can be handled by domestic laws. Different countries need to cooperate to reduce crime and disruption because victims can reside in one country while threat actors can reside in another. Countries need to agree to work together to enforce similar laws through signing treaty agreements. There needs to be cooperation on extradition principles as well as on how to reduce threats to technology. These are mainly policy considerations, where cybersecurity experts provide guidance to help law makers from all countries appreciate global cultural differences and to develop understandings that are beneficial for global economic growth along with mutual respect worldwide.

  1. I found this particularly interesting bit on your LinkedIn page: “New threats are examined, such as Electromagnetic Pulse and Microwave Directed Energy, along with the vulnerabilities that are targeted by new Advanced Persistent Threats.” What exactly do you mean by “electromagnetic pulse and microwave directed energies”? How are they a threat to cybersecurity?

New technologies sometimes defy common understandings based on past experiences. For example, directed energy can be used to overheat and disrupt computer circuitry. Movies often incorrectly portray electromagnetic pulse (EMP) as a temporary disruption where computer systems can just be switched back on after a few minutes downtime. The reality is that unless a system is carefully protected, after it is hit by a pulse of high energy the computer is practically useless and can just be thrown away.  People are not used to thinking about cybersecurity in this way.  However, devices that produce strong EMP can be purchased now over the internet because they have commercial uses.  An extremist or terrorist group may one day choose to use such a device to cause local or widespread disruption.  It is the responsibility of educational institutions to prepare cybersecurity practitioners so they understand realistically how newer technologies can be used in a cyberattack and how to realistically protect against the newer types of threats, such as directed high energy pulses.

  1. As far as you can divulge, what are the greatest cybersecurity vulnerabilities and what measures do companies and governments take to address them?

Cybersecurity technology is very sophisticated now.  Threat actors know this, so they bypass these protections and direct their attacks against the end users.  Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs) involve deceiving users into revealing their passwords so hackers can take over systems by impersonating inside users. Technology cannot stop this type of attack, so end users need to learn and follow best security practices to protect their sensitive information from theft and misuse. The newest type of cybersecurity threat is called a cyber weapon.  The best known example is the STUXNET malware cyber weapon that was launched against Iran to delay their nuclear development program a few years ago.  The cyber weapon was inserted into Iran’s top secret computer system by fooling local technicians into picking up a thumb drive and inserting it into a computer running inside the facility. The thumb drive contained the STUXNET malware, and the end users did not follow best practices. The STUXNET cyber weapon secretly operated to make the nuclear facility equipment malfunction for several years before finally being detected.

  1. Is there anything else that you feel anyone interested in the field of cybersecurity should know? Feel free to add anything at all!

If you are interested in technology, study the field of Information Assurance.  That involves cybersecurity with a focus on the operation of hardware and network systems. If you are interested in managing the technology and working for better global cooperation, study the field of cyber security policy. That will help create better strategies for managing the technologies that are constantly changing. Two examples of the newest technology developments are robots and 3-D Printing. Robots are just computers that move, but they will eventually make decisions acting as proxies for people. We will see this soon in the form of self-driving cars. 3-D printing threatens the existing laws and policy for copyright and patent because electronic files for 3-D objects can be pirated and transmitted instantly around the globe, similar to the way MP3 music files were once pirated and swapped among computer users on college campuses. The future hold much promise for new conveniences and new vulnerabilities. There will be many directions where cybersecurity will need to be applied in new ways.

 

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