John Hoyt and his team go to war every day with an enemy that is nameless, faceless and lives in the electronic ether where it can literally be any place, any time. It’s akin to battling ghosts, but don’t be fooled: Ambiguous as these villains are, they cause very real destruction and suffering.
As director of security infrastructure and operations for the Office of Information Security and Privacy, Hoyt is in charge of implementing and maintaining a security program that protects the University’s computing systems, services, network and data from intentional and unintentional loss, disclosure, alteration, destruction and unavailability. He and his team work in the cybersecurity operations center, a highly secured room full of computer monitors on the fourth floor of the Watt Family Innovation Center. The walls of the room are covered with state-of-the-art digital screens that project real-time graphs, tracking data and internet traffic.
“The mission of our center is to protect Clemson’s people, network and systems from the cybersecurity threats that we see every day,” said Hoyt, noting that there are thousands of threats every single day. “Usually it’s broadcast-type across the internet not targeted specifically to Clemson, but it’s ongoing and they’re constantly looking for targets of opportunity and weaknesses that they can take advantage of and exploit. It’s our job to keep them at bay.”
Chief Security Officer Hal Stone described Hoyt as the perfect person to lead the Cyber Security Operations Center, citing Hoyt’s years of experience creating security solutions.
“The CSOC plays a vital role in protecting our faculty, staff and students by monitoring activities across the University’s IT resources, responding to cyber-related incidents as quickly as possible to reduce the impact they may have to the University’s daily operations,” said Stone. “The capabilities and value the CSOC provides today is largely due to years of hard work and leadership by John.”
Defending a place like Clemson from cyber threats is a unique challenge, Hoyt said, because it’s not just a collection of offices.
“We’re like a small city,” he said. “We have water and power systems, transportation systems and people that live here. We’re a more open environment than, say, a corporate headquarters.”
Because of that, Hoyt and his team constantly see new kinds of threats designed to exploit any weaknesses in Clemson’s systems. Fortunately, the OISP has a secret weapon to help in the never-ending fight: Clemson students. Every semester, close to a dozen students interested in careers in cybersecurity join his team.
“Fortunately, we’re able to take advantage of our students as a resource, and it’s a great opportunity to train them in what we’re doing,” he said. “It gives them a chance to work with us in real environments. They really aren’t just answering tickets. We throw them in and give them hands-on experience that they can take to industry. One of my favorite aspects of this job is seeing students come in as beginners with no hands-on experience and go on to get careers in cybersecurity.”
Hoyt proudly notes that he also tapped into the energy of students when he formed the champion Clemson University competitive cybersecurity team, CU Cyber, with several faculty members. The team competes in cybersecurity challenges against other teams across the state and the nation.
“We formed the club with the purpose of giving students a group to come together to learn and teach each other cybersecurity-related topics,” said Hoyt. ‘We also developed the club with the purpose of competing in collegiate competitions against other universities. The one we have done the best in is the Palmetto Cyber Defense Competition. Our students compete against other universities in the state and have won five out of the last seven years.”
Hoyt says his defining moment at Clemson came in 2016, when talks for starting a cybersecurity operations center at Clemson were just getting started.
“We didn’t know if we’d have students who would be interested,” he said. “We didn’t know if they’d come, if they’d work with us and we didn’t know who was going to run it. So I made the decision and said I would lead it, not knowing how it was going to work out and not knowing how I’d be able to manage my regular day job.”
With Hoyt’s leadership, the center became a reality. Six students showed up to be a part of it and rapidly became an asset to Hoyt’s team.
“That was the best decision I’ve made here,” he said.
Hoyt grew up in Powdersville. He attended Wren High School, which is where he met his wife, Karen. They have been married for 19 years and have four children: Emma, 15; Addison, 13; Luke, 10; and Sara, 2.
“As you can imagine a house of four kids is a crazy mad house,” he laughed. “But we have a good time.”
Lately, he’s been learning Brazilian jujitsu and teaching it to his kids.
Hoyt said that today, with internet networks, phones, laptops, cybersecurity is more important than ever to maintain a safe system environment for people to perform in. Bad guys are trying to steal information and credentials and use it for monetary gain, and he assures anyone reading this that they are merciless, heartless and unrelenting. Working together, we can defeat them, so he wants everyone at Clemson to know that they’re a part of his team, too.
“We want people to know that security is everybody’s job,” he said. “If you see something that looks suspicious it’s so valuable to us if you let us know about it. Just one email can be the catalyst that keeps us all safe.”