Hacking contests help government identify cybersecurity recruits

One of the greatest cybersecurity challenges the United States government currently faces is the dearth of professionals employed throughout federal agencies. Without cybersecurity experts in place, organizations cannot hope to fully protect themselves from evolving cybercriminal threats.

In order to remedy this situation, the government is increasingly turning to hacking contests, Politico reported. These events allow young computer aficionados to practice their hacking skills in a safe, legal environment, helping government decision-makers identify and recruit talented cybersecurity professionals.

Hacking benefits
The news source reported that approximately 70 high school and college students and graduates recently participated in one such hacking contest. Hosted by the nonprofit U.S. Cyber Challenge, this event was held at the University of Delaware and attended by a number of government representatives, including a governor and U.S. senator.

"We know that we've got a lot of young geniuses in there; we've got to convince them this is a noble career," said Delaware Homeland Security Adviser Ray Holcomb, the news source reported. "It is more than just a computer game – it's not just a game – that great things are at risk. National security is at risk, potential for huge economic loss is at risk and personal public safety."

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., agreed.

"This is a war," said the senator, the news source noted. "[W]e need cyber warriors, and we need to grow our own."

A safe space
Hacking events such as this one are invaluable because they provide an opportunity for up-and-coming computing professionals to practice skills that would potentially fall on the wrong side of legal otherwise. Such experience is critical for those who will go on to combat cybercriminals on behalf of the U.S. government.

"It's a gray area in many regards," said James Luck, a computer science student at the University of Delaware, Politico reported. "The way in which you pursue knowledge in this field can lead you to observing illegal things so you know how to prevent them, and it's nice to have an environment where you know that doing these illegal things, so that you know more about them, is not going to be getting you in trouble."

A growing need
Speaking to the news source, Ernest McDuffie, the lead of the National Institute of Standards and Technology's National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education, noted that in some cases participants at this and other hacking competitions receive job offers right on the spot. He emphasized that there are simply not enough cybersecurity experts to meet public and private sector demand, which makes these events key opportunities for federal recruiters.

Notably, government officials recently revealed that foreign cybercriminals, most likely originating in China, managed to gain access to several federal agencies' networks. This incident revealed two key problems. First, many U.S. agencies are not prepared to deal with the increasing maturity of many attackers' techniques. Second, the attackers in question are turning their attention to targets that have traditionally been seen as lower-risk. Consequently, an influx of cybersecurity talent is essential for many agencies.