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Research project focuses on cybersecurity in businesses

| Judy Berthiaume

Photo caption: Senior Sara Hansen is working on a research project focusing on cybersecurity in the business world, a longtime interest of the UW-Eau Claire accounting major. She received the College of Business’ 2021-22 James R. and Vicki Lord Larson Undergraduate Research Fellowship. (Photo by Bill Hoepner)

Sara Hansen grew up working alongside her father, a self-employed jack-of-all-trades who made his living juggling multiple business projects.

“I would help my dad with his many business projects, which included a vending machine service, bulk milk route, cash crop farming and a snack food delivery service to neighboring grocery stores, restaurants and bars,” says Hansen, now a senior accounting major at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. “He packaged candy and snacks for his customers, fixed his own trucks and machinery, and did all his own bookkeeping. He inspired me to work hard, treat others with kindness and respect, and, most importantly, to be honest.”

Years later, those lessons continue to inspire Hansen as she works toward her degree in accounting and joins a research project that focuses on integrity in the business world.

This spring, Hansen was awarded the College of Business’ 2021-2022 James R. and Vicki Lord Larson Undergraduate Research Fellowship. Through the fellowship, she is collaborating on research with Dr. Jidong Zhang, assistant professor of accounting and finance.

Jidong Zhang

Dr. Jidong Zhang, assistant professor of accounting and finance

"Our research involves the alarming increase in cybersecurity risks and breaches seen in current business information systems," Hansen says. "Some public companies enlist the services of professionals to test and protect their networks against malicious attempts by illegal hackers. These ‘ethical hackers’ are rewarded financially for their efforts. Our objective is to explore the impact of this award system on the internal control report quality in these public companies."

A new area of research

Zhang and Hansen’s project will focus on an area within business cybersecurity and internal control that is relatively new to research.

In recent years, big data, AI (Artificial Intelligence) and RPA (Robot Process Automation) became trends in business, significantly changing the profession of accounting and finance, Zhang says. Cybersecurity problems have become a critical issue, with cybersecurity crime costs exceeding $2 trillion in 2019.

Given the enormous economic losses from these crimes, business leaders asked that the accounting profession improve the capabilities of internal auditing and control areas, Zhang says. As a result, there are new job opportunities in information system auditing, information system control design and information system implementation consulting.

“As an educator, I would like to catch up with the professional trend and involve this new knowledge in classes,” Zhang says. “The introduction of these recent trends makes the class interesting to students and lets our students fully prepare for the future job market.”

Hansen says the research’s focus on integrity and respect in business makes the research especially intriguing.

“These traits certainly apply to the business and accounting fields,” Hansen says. “Before returning to school, I managed an online store selling motorcycle communications and accessories. I enjoyed working with customers, supplying them with and standing behind quality products. This passion of mine has been reinforced throughout my experience on campus and I have grown to see the tremendous need for integrity in today’s business world. It is unfortunate to witness companies struggle or fail due to mismanagement or misappropriation.”

She began to understand the magnitude of cybersecurity threats to businesses after Zhang talked about an incident several years ago when hackers gained access to more than 40 million credit cards used by Target customers and the personal data of more than 70 million customers.

“The fact that a company so large and successful could fall prey to hackers sparked my curiosity, both as a student and a consumer,” Hansen says. “Other factors that have contributed to my interest in cybersecurity research include Dr. Zhang’s many credentials and his experience in the industry.”

For their project, Hansen and Zhang are studying public companies, which are traded on the open stock market and are legally held accountable to their stockholders. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the federal agency that regulates publicly traded companies, requires that they disclose the unauthorized use of their electronic data each fiscal year through their financial reporting measures.

When it comes to cybersecurity, this accountability can have a Catch-22 effect for a public company, Hansen says. While the SEC is looking out for stakeholders, a company must also not reveal information that may draw the attention of cyber criminals, she says.

“As a result, some companies resort to giving very vague information regarding their cybersecurity,” Hansen says. “A public company must choose between the degree of information they reveal about their cybersecurity status and how those details may expose their vulnerability to cybersecurity attacks.

“Our research will shed light on the accountability involved in reporting cybersecurity breaches by public companies and the link between a public company’s cybersecurity behavior and its financial performance.”

The value of faculty-student research

Hansen is grateful to the late Dr. Vicki Lord Larson for seeing the value of faculty and students collaborating on meaningful research. Lord Larson, a longtime faculty member who later served as interim chancellor at UW-Eau Claire, supports several scholarships.

“Her gift lives on to support research in many disciplines and I appreciate being part of that ongoing progress,” Hansen says. “I look forward to exploring an area in business cybersecurity and internal control that is relatively new to research. It is a unique proposal that will challenge my abilities in problem solving, oral and written presentation, and independent work.”

The fellowship makes it possible for students to apply theoretical knowledge to resolve practical and social problems, Zhang says. It also gives them economic support while engaging in research and allows them to develop skills that will help them in their future careers.

Zhang, who joined UW-Eau Claire’s faculty in 2019, is impressed with the quality and quantity of research experiences available to Blugolds.

“The strength of student research support from the university is so strong, like I have never seen before in my teaching experiences,” Zhang says. “This support will improve our students' capabilities and skills, making students more competitive in the future job market.”

Hansen’s hard work and passion for accounting information systems impressed Zhang. She also is self-motivated and self-disciplined, merits that are essential for researchers, he says.

Being part of a research project with Zhang is both an opportunity and a gift, Hansen says.

“I will be able to glean from Dr. Zhang’s vast insight and learn from his direction,” Hansen says. “It is my hope that this research project will give me insight into data security/internal control and enable me someday to help companies to safeguard their assets.”

Finding her place as a Blugold

After high school, Hansen earned two associate degrees from the Chippewa Valley Technical College, one in accounting and one in what was then known as data processing.

Years later, as she was raising her family, she decided to return to school for her bachelor’s degree. Since she lives in Mondovi, it made sense to go to UW-Eau Claire. She came to campus as a nursing major, but quickly realized her passion still was in accounting.

“Going back to college as a nontraditional student presented a few challenges as my two youngest children were still home,” Hansen says. “I initially commuted to campus, but eventually was given an opportunity for housing during the week through a local church. As I took courses, I found that professors were willing to work with students, appreciative of class participation and prompt in responding to email inquiries.”

Navigating COVID-19 was difficult, but Hansen was able to stay on track to graduate in December thanks to a supportive campus community.

“Throughout my journey at UWEC, I have encountered professionalism and genuine concern among not only professors, but with academic guidance, administrative and maintenance staff as well,” Hansen says.

It was her accounting professors who convinced her to pursue CPA licensure, says Hansen, who now is studying for her first CPA exam. CPA licensure will give her more opportunities to contribute to the accounting field in ways that align with her beliefs about how businesses should operate, she says.

“My dad was my first teacher and example,” Hansen says. “Thanks to him, I am hoping that my dedication to hard work, honesty and treating others with kindness and respect will help me contribute to the accounting field.

“Having access to the tremendous staff in UWEC’s College of Business is a great source of comfort. I am grateful for their influence and efforts, especially during the pandemic. I know I can rely on their expertise and dedication to the business world to answer any questions I encounter in my journey.”