Faculty Spotlight: James Cannady

“Any life that is well lived is one where you’ve left a positive mark. I have no idea what my mark will be when I’m gone, but I hope that maybe things will be a little better than when I got here. That’s all any of us can hope for,” said James Cannady, Ph.D., professor in the Graduate School of Computer and Information Sciences.

Cannady never planned to be a full time professor with a Ph.D. and a part time paramedic. He said the plan in 1984 was to be a police officer until he retired. However, he’s not one of those people who plans his life out. He takes the opportunities given to him, and those opportunities led him to where he is now.

Before Cannady became a professor at NSU 11 years ago, he was a police officer in Atlanta, GA and a federal government special agent working with foreign counterintelligence. He lived in Japan, where he met his wife and had his daughter. He also lived in Iceland, where he realized information security was what he wanted to pursue.

“To pursue information technology to the extent that I wanted to, I had to have a graduate degree. There was a really good school in Iceland, but you had to speak Icelandic. So, I couldn’t go that route,” he said.

Cannady said his students are always curious to know what his previous jobs were like and how he ended up where he is, but he’s not sure how or why he came to do what he does. It all started with his parents who were in the military. He grew up wanting to make a contribution to his community.

“I felt an obligation. I was a detective when I left the police force and it was hard to leave because when you’re a cop you feel tied to your community. When I drove home in the morning, I had this feeling that I’d taken care of these people while they slept. I felt responsible for them in a way,” he said.

After working with foreign counterintelligence and “catching spies,” he felt a responsibility to look after people as well, but with intelligence security. Cannady wanted to catch hackers. Receiving his Ph.D. was the perfect way for him to mix his love for science and his desire to do research about hackers.

All of the experiences Cannady has help him bring an element to teaching that most professors can’t provide.

“What I offer my students is the practical aspect. I’ve been on the front line in regards to information security. I can translate the academics into the realities of security,” he said.

When Cannady first started information security in the 1980s, it was a pure specialization, and it had a niche. Now, it is everywhere because technology is everywhere.

“When we started our program, we had to convince people that it’s important. But now most professionals know how hard [information security] is and how important it is,” he said.

Currently, Cannady is working on how systems can identify hackers like the human body identifies a virus or an infection.

He said, “Your brain doesn’t tell your body how to fight infections. There are simple chemical processes that are able to do this. If we can come up with a similar approach with intrusion detection, then we’ll eventually find a solution to this hacker problem.”

Cannady wouldn’t be working on this project if he hadn’t pursued the numerous opportunities in his life. He said the biggest challenge was not fitting himself into a box.

“It hasn’t been a straight road for me. Things have just worked out. It really is a matter of taking opportunities and working hard. What it comes down to is doing what you enjoy and doing it for the right reasons. Whatever challenges any of us have are just an opportunity to grow. They’re opportunities to do something greater,” he said.

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