Got cyber skills? Uncle Sam wants you

A group of private and government organizations has launched a program to build the next generation of U.S. cyber defense leaders.

The U.S. Cyber Challenge is looking for 10,000 young Americans with the skills to be cybersecurity practitioners, researchers, guardians, and cyberwarriors. The program will provide participants with competition, training, recognition and a chance to win scholarships. It is led by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and includes the Defense Department’s Cyber Crime Center, the Air Force Association and the SANS Institute

Experts say there is an urgent need to expand the federal cybersecurity workforce. The Partnership for Public Service and Booz Allen Hamilton recently released a report that said the government will be unable to combat cyber threats without “a more coordinated, sustained effort to increase cybersecurity expertise in the federal workforce.” The study said the “pipeline of potential new talent is inadequate.”

“This is the biggest issue for the cyber community, this is the biggest national issue,” Alan Paller, director of research at the SANS Institute, said July 22. “But it’s played wrong a lot of the time, it’s played as if we need more bodies – it’s not that we need more bodies, we need bodies with particular skills.”

The U.S. Cyber Challenge program includes three ongoing competitions:

  • The CyberPatriot Defense Competition, a national high school cyber defense competition run by the Air Force Association.
  • The DC3 Digital Forensics Competition, a DOD competition that focuses on cyber investigation and forensics.
  • NetWars Capture the Flag Competition, a SANS Institute challenge to test the mastery of vulnerabilities.

Paller said although the Air Force Association competition is limited to high school students, the other two competitions don’t have age restrictions. However, he said the camps are limited to students in the latter part of high school and in college.

Paller said the competitions are a way for people to prove that they have talent. However, he said the U.S. Cyber Challenge is a “nurturing program” and is unique because it continues after the competition portion.

“If you think about sports, grade school and high school give kids the chance to show that they might be good at basketball or soccer or football -– we don’t have anything like that in cyber except bad things,” Paller said. “The only way you can show you're good in cyber right now is to do something that really can get you in trouble, if you’re a kid.”

Young people who do well in the competitions will then be invited for to cyber camps at colleges where they will get further instruction and face additional competition. Then, the young people who are successful at the camps will participate in live competitions around the country.

Those who excel in the program can then receive different types of scholarships, Paller said. He added that the young people who participate in the program make a commitment not to use it for “evil.”

“The whole idea is to make it so cool that the kids who might have thought about doing it for evil will say  ‘Hey…I’m going to do it for good,’ and at least try it and maybe we get them hooked,” Paller said.

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