The federal government, education officials and giant military contractors are collaborating to recruit a new class of tech professional specifically trained to battle data thieves, online scammers and cyberspies.
The recruitment tool of choice: competitions that pit tech-savvy youths in mock warfare against professional hackers. This year, the Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition drew teams from 83 colleges and universities, up from five schools in 2005. Boeing hired seven contestants to help defend its internal networks, which are prime targets for corporate and military spies.
“Our goal is to increase the opportunities for young cyberexperts to exercise and demonstrate their passion for this career field,” says Alan Greenberg, Boeing’s technical director of cyber and information solutions.
A similar contest that accepts high schoolers, the US Cyber Challenge, has a goal of finding 10,000 “cybersecurity top guns.” Promotional materials tout bragging rights for beating bad guys. “We’re building the pipeline that will produce our future cyberguardians,” says Alan Paller, research director of SANS Institute, a co-sponsor of the event.
Meanwhile, community colleges and universities are expanding vocational training and academic degree programs. Enrollment in two-year programs participating in CyberWatch, a consortium of Mid-Atlantic colleges focused on cybersecurity training, has jumped about 66% in each of the past two years, says CyberWatch co-director Casey O’Brien. Students include recent high school grads, as well as adults seeking to change or advance their careers. “People are starting to get that the success of these programs is absolutely critical to the future of our country,” says O’Brien.
Initiatives are even getting underway to boost awareness among grade schoolers. Two Maryland school districts, Baltimore County and Howard County, just launched a pilot program offering “information assurance” as a career track. Cybersecurity scenarios will be worked into the K-12 curriculum, says Davina Pruitt-Mentle, CyberWatch curriculum and outreach director.
One math exercise asks students to calculate the total permutations of a four-digit PIN. Educators hope to raise security awareness among grade schoolers immersed in social networks and texting.
“The cybersecurity piece hasn’t really been on anyone’s radar,” says Pruitt-Mentle.