An online training company is offering a master's degree program in security science.

EC-Council University, a Mexico-based distance learning company, has launched the program to help qualified workers advance their training and move to the next level of the security profession.

Founded in 2006, the school is a spin-off of the International Council of Electronic Commerce Consultants, an online trainer that claims to have certified more than 40,000 IT professionals already, including 12,000-plus security specialists.

With the growing need for highly skilled security experts among businesses, EC-Council founders say there's a scarcity of people who have all the know-how necessary to make the leap to CTO-level work.

"Traditionally, a lot of white hat hackers have been people with computer science backgrounds who taught themselves about hacking, but we're trying to change the surface of the industry because we can't leave this field of study up to chance," said Jay Bavisi, president of EC-Council.

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"In researching the issue, we found that people had widely different standards of knowledge and varying levels of skill when applying for these types of high-level IT security jobs," he said. "We think that we can set a standard by which people worldwide can say, 'This is what you need to know to be considered a true ethical hacker.'"

Through the program, Bavisi said, the school is giving a handful of candidates - all of whom have amassed significant amounts of IT security training and real-world experience before qualifying for the degree - the chance to boost their overall understanding of many different types of security issues while improving their future job prospects.

The school is officially accredited by the New Mexico Department of Education, and it claims that the "ethical hacker master's" program attracted more than150 candidates for its initial class, only six of whom were accepted.

All of the applicants who were accepted - and are currently undergoing training - had at least one other master's degree or an "enormous" amount of real-world experience, he said.

The school has previously offered professional certification in security fields including computer forensics, ethical hacking, and penetration testing, but under the master's program - which is expected to take anywhere from one to three years to complete and cost more than $21,000 in tuition - students will be forced to immerse themselves in nearly every area of IT systems defense and policy enforcement.

Upon demonstrating that they have accrued a degree in computer science or commensurate real-world experience, students who qualify for the program are required to take courses in ethical hacking and countermeasures, computer forensics, and network intrusion detection.

Candidates must then complete six electives to qualify for the degree, along with a master's thesis, with the option to choose courses from a list that includes secure network management, security analysis and vulnerability assessment, cyberlaw, principles of e-business security, disaster recovery, project management, penetration testing, secure programming, and wireless networking.