Since the early days of the internet, Dr. Steven MacMartin has been fighting computer crime. Over a 31-year career with U.S. Customs and the Department of Homeland Security, he examined over 1,000 computers and drives and was an expert witness at hundreds of trials.
“In 1985, when I was starting to do computer crime investigations, you might see one computer a year,” MacMartin recalled. “It was in the early 2000s that we started to see computer seizures become fairly routine.”
Today, MacMartin fights cybercrime in a different way. He shapes the next generation of cybersecurity professionals as program director for the Bachelor of Science in Cybersecurity degree program at Hilbert College.
He’s preparing them to face a much wider array of challenges than he did. “Today, cybersecurity is about everything,” he said.
“It’s about protecting personal information. It’s about intellectual property rights. It’s about company secrets. It’s about government infrastructure and the power grid. Everything’s much more connected, and so are the threats.”
Computer crime was not on MacMartin’s mind as he grew up in Ogdensburg, New York, on the St. Lawrence River at the Canadian border. His first college degree was in physical education and coaching.
In his small town, though, there were no job openings for his degree. At a friend’s suggestion, he took an employment exam with the U.S. government and received offers from several agencies. In 1980, he chose Customs, then part of the U.S. Treasury Department.
Starting as a customs inspector at a Canadian border crossing, MacMartin quickly moved up to a more interesting job. As a customs investigator, with the title of Special Agent, he probed the smuggling of guns, narcotics, human beings and more.
In one case, he helped repatriate 100 pieces of pre-Columbian gold and jade artifacts to Ecuador and Costa Rica. In another, he received round-the-clock protection after foiling a terrorist plot to bomb synagogues and mosques in Toronto.
More and more, though, he found himself assigned to examine computers: partly because he was a hobbyist who built them in his spare time.
“A computer seizure needs to be forensically examined, just like you'd examine a body or a crime scene or a blood splatter,” he said. “You need to be specifically trained and have specific equipment. Pretty soon, I was so busy that all I was doing were computer exams.”
When he first worked with computers, MacMartin recalls, a major customs issue was child pornography smuggled into the U.S. through internet chat groups. From his office in Buffalo, he pieced together the digital trails of perpetrators. His work resulted in 50 convictions in countries like Canada, Germany, Japan, England and Switzerland.
But exposure to horrific material took a psychological toll, he said. After two years, he asked to be assigned to other operations.
In 1996, he earned certification as a computer forensic examiner, allowing him to testify as an expert witness. He also helped set up western New York’s first Regional Computer Forensics Lab, sharing federal resources with local law enforcement, before turning it over to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
In that decade, many of his cases revolved around stolen technology. “There were a lot of embargoes on transferring high technology from the United States, and everybody wanted to get technologies like our guidance systems for F-16s,” he recalled.
Today, the nature and goals of cybercriminals have changed, he said. They’re either seeking profit through black market sales or ransomware, or they’re nations seeking intelligence or disruption.
“We are at war,” MacMartin said. “We've been under attack for years. When I say ‘we,’ I mean, government organizations, private organizations and personal data. This is a sustained, coordinated, targeted effort by certain state actors, such as Russia, North Korea and Iran.”
As far back as 1999, Buffalo-area colleges had asked him to speak and teach part-time. As he approached age 57—the mandatory retirement age for a Special Agent—one school asked him to set up a degree program in Homeland Security. In 2011, he retired two years early and started teaching full time.
A decade later, after retiring again, he got a call from Hilbert and an opportunity to return to his first love: cybersecurity. In 2022, he took the reins of its bachelor’s program.
MacMartin sees his career connections as one of the program’s strengths, enabling students to learn from experts in a wide variety of fields.
“Students are taught by professionals,” he said. “We have people from all sorts of jurisdictions: health care, banking, private industry, local government, federal law enforcement and state law enforcement.”
He’s also designing a master’s program set to launch in the fall of 2023. The program will focus on the administration of cybersecurity programs as well as their technical aspects. Employers are demanding graduates who can step in and run their cybersecurity operations without additional training, he said.
An additional focus is updating the curriculum to focus on the latest risks in cybercrime. New courses will focus on topics such as digital currencies, financial crimes and securing data kept in the cloud.
“Every year, the problems seem to get exponentially bigger,” he said. “We’re in a cyberwar, and we want to equip students with the latest weapons for fighting it.”
With the proliferation of online threats, the demand for cybersecurity experts has never been greater. A program like Hilbert’s Bachelor of Science in Cybersecurity and professionals like Dr. Steven MacMartin can equip students with both technical and managerial skills for protecting personal data, business secrets and national security. Learn more about how Hilbert College can help you start your path to a rewarding and in-demand career in cybersecurity.
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