On Friday the US starts Ender's hacking game: All local teens can compete for scholarships in cybersecurity

CyberStart America challenge aims to find talented network defenders

Starting on Friday, US high school students can register to participate in CyberStart America, an online puzzle-solving game designed to identify cybersecurity talent and qualify participants for an opportunity to compete in the National Cyber Scholarship Competition next year.

The 700-800 top scorers in the national competition will receive scholarships of about $2,500 from a $2m scholarship fund.

The CyberStart America program, sponsored by the National Cyber Scholarship Foundation, aims to find students with an affinity for security-oriented challenges in the hope of steering them toward careers defending US organizations.

There's something of a shortage of skilled cybersecurity professionals in the US. In November, 2019, (ISC)², a non-profit security trade group, said the current US cybersecurity workforce numbers about 804,700, which is 498,480 or 62 per cent short of estimated requirements.

The NIST-funded CyberSeek project lists 507,924 cybersecurity job openings at the moment, up from 285,681 in 2018, and cites a supply/demand ratio of 1.8 for the field, compared with a national average ratio of 3.7 among all jobs. That suggests cybersecurity positions will see fewer applicants than most other jobs.

The CyberStart program was founded by James Lyne, CTO of the SANS Institute, a for-profit cybersecurity training company, as a way to help increase the supply of relevant talent. It was subsequently expanded with Girls Go CyberStart, an offshoot program aimed specifically at increasing female participation that was run in 25 states during the 2018-2020 school years and saw the participation of about 30,000 high school students.

The CyberStart game is offered in Europe as a paid service for individuals, families, and educational institutions.

CyberStart America is a free program that uses the CyberStart puzzles that touch on topics like cryptography, social engineering, steganography, and Python programming.

With only a modest score – completing just 20 per cent of the challenges – participants can qualify to compete in the national competition. Other similar programs like picoCTF, CyberPatriot, and the JROTC CyberStart program offer alternative paths to qualify for the national competition.

The main requirement for eligibility is to be a US high school student at least 13 years of age.

The CyberStart America program is funded by the National Cyber Scholarship Foundation, a non-profit overseen by Franklin Reeder, co-founder of the Center for Internet Security (CIS), Michele Guel, data security and privacy strategist at Cisco, and Alan Paller, director of research at the SANS Institute and president of the SANS Technology Institute.

"This game allows students to tap into their potential as problem solvers, to get a self assessment of that potential but also to enable the country to get a picture of who can be great in cybersecurity," said Paller in an email to The Register.

Haya Arfat, a freshman currently studying computer science at Texas A&M University, participated in CyberStart in 2019 and earlier this year. In a phone interview with The Register she said she became aware of the program because a high school teacher posted a link to the competition in her Google Classroom.

"I checked it out when I thought it sounded interesting because I had no exposure to cyber security at that point," she said. "I was doing it with three or four other girls and we ended up scoring well enough to make it to nationals. I really enjoyed it the first year and I continued doing it my senior year as well."

Arfat, who plans to minor in cybersecurity, ended up getting a scholarship for being a top scorer in Texas. Scholarship awards are typically around $2,500, according to Paller.

While Afrat already had an interest in computer science and was an officer of her high school's computer science club her senior year, she said CyberStart didn't only appeal to those with a prior interest in technology.

"I know there were girls who hadn't been considering computer science until they did the competition," she said, noting that they found cyber security more interesting than programming.

Arfat said what appealed to her about CyberStart was the program didn't feel like a competition. "I remember really enjoying the challenges," she said. "It felt like the whole time I was just kind of like, having fun. It didn't really seem like I was studying or like I was trying to compete. I was just having a good time."

Before CyberStart, Arfat knew she wanted to study computer science but didn't have a specific career path in mind. "It’s really not an exaggeration for me to say that CyberStart changed my life," she said.

Registration for the CyberStart America game opens on Friday and play is scheduled to run from November 15, 2020 through the end of February 2021, when the national finalists will be announced. The finalists will then compete in a Challenge Round in late March or early April 2021.

"Today’s most sophisticated attacks are engineered to evade all existing automated cyber defense tools," said Paller.

"The only possible defense is people with elite talent and advanced training enabling them to defend systems in real time against determined adversaries. For the first time in my 35 years in cybersecurity, I am confident the US can now discover those people, inspire them and launch their journeys." ®

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