Training security's next generation

A variety of groups have created a pipeline for training computer security professionals, starting from high school to beyond college. Will it work?

Driven by a desperate need for computer security professionals, government agencies and companies have funded cyber security contests to attract new blood. The latest one takes the security bandwagon to U.S. high schools.

Last week the U.S. Cyber Challenge group kicked off an individual cyber competition for high school students, known as Cyber Foundations. The program, run by the SANS Institute, will aim to train students in the basics of systems administration, networking, and operating systems. Techniques used by online attackers will not be covered, says Alan Paller, research director of the SANS Institute.

"It is practical in that you learn administration stuff, practical in building scripts and finding registry keys, but not about how you exploit an SQL-injection vulnerability," Paller says.

Two years ago the SANS Institute and other organizations announced an initiative known as the U.S. Cyber Challenge with the aim to train 10,000 cyber security specialists. The USCC gathered together several challenges under one umbrella, including the Department of Defense' Forensics Challenge, the Cyber Patriot Defense competition run by the Air Force, the University of Texas at San Antonio and SAIC, and the SANS Institute's NetWars competition.

The Cyber Foundations competition establishes a contest at the high school level for individuals to compete with one another in their knowledge of basic system administration tasks. Along with the forthcoming CyberQuest contest, Cyber Foundations will round out a marathon of cyber security events, allowing interested participants to take part in individual and team events in high school, college, and beyond.

In Cyber Foundations, each contestant has two weeks' prep time and then a single day of competition where they are quizzed on their operational knowledge.

"You can't answer the questions by finding the answer, you have to go do something to get the answer," Paller says.

The competition aims to bring the excitement of sports events to cyber security, says Paller. Given the problems that video gaming -- a much more visual computer event -- had attempting the same transition, the U.S. Cyber Challenge will have its work cut out for it.

Winning the competition can lead to good things, however, which suggests that the contests do help better train participants for the real world. In 2009 Boeing hired six members of the team that won the Western Region Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition (CCDC). The U.S. Navy and NYU Poly both have offered scholarships to the winners of certain events, says Paller. This year both Microsoft and Lockheed Martin are sponsoring the competitions.

At the very least, the tutorial material will help high schools develop better curriculum for computer security courses. The videos can complement an ongoing high-school course or offer extracurricular studies for interested students, Paller says.

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