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Hackers Unite: Student Cybersecurity Teams Get a Governing Body

Student athletes have long had high-school sports associations and the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Now student hackers are getting their own governing body.

The newly created Cybersecurity Competition Federation will link existing but disparate cybersecurity competitions under shared rules, scoring metrics, and ethics. It will cover the secondary and postsecondary competitions, centralizing contests that are an increasingly important tool for the training and recruiting of the next generation of cybersecurity professionals.

“The Cybersecurity Competition Federation is a collaboration of stakeholders who believe in the value of cybersecurity competitions to work together to develop common metrics, a common pathway, and a common set of ethics that can apply to all competitions,” says Daniel P. Manson, chair of the computer-information-systems department at California State Polytechnic University at Pomona and principal architect of the federation. “It is what a sport has.”

Armed with a two-year, $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, the federation held its first workshop last month, attracting representatives from most of the major contests, Mr. Manson says. A second workshop is scheduled for December 12-13.

Cybersecurity events, like the academic and professional programs behind them, have proliferated during the last decade. Some of the most prominent include Toaster Wars, the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition, and the U.S. Cyber Challenge.

When it began, in 2009, the high-school-level CyberPatriot competition attracted eight teams, Mr. Manson says. In 2012, 1,225 teams competed.

During competitions, participants complete tasks such as breaching secure networks and searching for hidden files. Different competitions focus on different skill sets. The events engage students in ways that classroom instruction can’t, according to educators and professionals in the field. The competitions also create opportunities for instructors and students to meet with people in the private sector.

“The students love it,” says Ernest McDuffie, head of the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education, which is led by the National Institute for Standards and Technology. “Parents love it. The sponsors love it. It really is a chance for them to demonstrate their skill set. It is really an important activity for them. We are seeing it even at the high-school level as a vehicle that teachers are using not only to teach the field but to attract people to the field.”

Cybersecurity is a booming, high-paying career option, and standout performances at competitions generate job offers. In 2009 Cal Poly Pomona’s Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition team finished first in its region and fourth nationally, Mr. Manson says.

“When they came back from nationals, Boeing called us up and said, ‘We want to interview your team,’” Mr. Manson says. “They made an offer to seven members of that team that were graduating to work together in cybersecurity in Boeing.”

Under the new federation’s umbrella, Mr. Manson wants cybersecurity competitors who are students to be able to build personal-performance statistics much like those accumulated by traditional student athletes. Such statistics could be used by high-school students applying to college-level cybersecurity programs as well as by college students applying for jobs. The statistics would be especially valuable for students with brilliant programming skills but lackluster grades, Mr. Manson says.

The federation will also develop a network of mentors who can foster the skills of students starting as early as middle school. The goal is to build a generation of students who enter college with extensive experience.

“It is going to put pressure on those of us who teach in college,” Mr. Manson says. “It is going to put pressure to raise the level of what we are teaching, but it is good pressure. I want good pressure. I want us to be forced to have what we teach be at a higher level. If we get kids with thousands of hours of hands-on before they get to college, we are going to have to be teaching at a higher level.”

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