www.baltimoresun.com/news/opinion/oped/bal-preparing-tomorrows-cyber-defenders-20130411,0,7485918.story

baltimoresun.com

Preparing tomorrow's cyber defenders

By Jonathan Coombes

4:53 PM EDT, April 11, 2013

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We live in a world where almost everything we need to accomplish can be done online. Mobile phones and tablets allow us to work and play on the go. We shop online. We bank online. We store some of our most important personal details online. The other side, of course, is that we also live in a world where many of the networks we use to work and play online are increasingly vulnerable to attack by creative cyber criminals. A majority of Americans don’t think twice about these issues when they log into a computer or use their mobile phone, but those of us in the security business know better. We know there are talented individuals working behind the scenes to ensure our interactions are secure and our private information stays safe.

As both online transactions and online attacks become more prevalent, training the next crop of cyber security professionals is incredibly important. Events like the Mid-Atlantic Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition (MACCDC) -- which is taking place this week at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab -- give top-level cyber security students the chance to defend a network against professional hackers in a real-world scenario. This unique competition allows students to learn from proven experts and address actual security and operational challenges that are similar to the situations these students will soon face as they enter the job market.

Volunteer experts gathered this week to challenge students to an elaborate game of “capture the flag.” The professionals, who make their living trying to break into networks to identify weaknesses, attempted to hack into a system guarded by eight teams of students. The resulting “battle” provides an opportunity for professional penetration testers to share their knowledge. These interactions go beyond just coursework and provide the students practical experience and a better understanding of how real-world attacks play out.

Cyber attacks are becoming more complex, and hiring enough workers with security expertise is becoming more challenging. This is one of the reasons my company has been involved with MACCDC for the past three years. We realize first-hand the importance of competitions like MACCDC as training grounds for future cybersecurity professionals. It will be today’s youth who will provide tomorrow’s protection. The security professionals who volunteer from Neustar look forward to MACCDC as not only a way to challenge students with real hacking curveballs, but also they see it as a tremendous opportunity to identify top talent for future intern and full-time employment opportunities. These events prepare students for future jobs and also provide security leaders the opportunity to identify and recruit talented individuals who have the passion for protecting an organization -- land the country -- against the ever-changing cyber threat landscape. In fact, we recruited one of last year’s MACCDC student team leaders, and he now works in our security operations center.  

As a country, we have come to realize the importance of training real-world security professionals to meet current and future cyber threats.  In recent months, Congress has debated the best approach to protecting the country’s critical infrastructure, and it is extremely urgent that the public and private sectors work together to safeguard our national security. We are in an arms race with cyber criminals who constantly try to find holes in our defenses to infiltrate our networks—most recently, taking down the sites of major U.S. financial institutions.  The MACCDC is one avenue for professionals to teach students — our future cyber protectors — the skills they need to help give us the advantage in this arms race.  And the tech-savvy students often teach the professionals a few lessons as well.

Jonathan Coombes is chief information security officer for Neustar.