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Through CyberPatriot III, high school students across the nation will block enemy attacks and fill security breaches in their computer networks during the upcoming academic year.
And industry members hope that this exposure to online security principles will grab students' interest and prompt them to consider careers in IT fields such as cybersecurity.
"If we did no more than increase sensitivity to some basic online security principles to a million kids, that would be doing something too,” said David Buckwalter, executive vice president of the Air Force Association, which started the competition.
CyberPatriot includes online training and qualification rounds that lead up to in-person championships for both divisions in April 2011. In the qualification rounds, the teams download a virtual machine image that contains flaws. Once they unlock the image, they find vulnerabilities inside the machine and secure them within a specified amount of time.
This year, students from military and non-military schools can compete in separate devisions thanks to a grant from Northrop Grumman Corp., the presenting sponsor. In the first two years of the competition, only Air Force Junior Reserve Officer's Training Corps members participated.Now teacher-coaches are registering their student teams and preparing for CyberPatriot III over the summer.
The competition platform from Science Applications International Corp. includes a scoring machine that tracks how the students fix the vulnerabilities and gives kids progress reports online. As the students advance, the images become more complex and involve different operating systems such as Windows and Linux.
Throughout CyberPatriot, students learn how to set up a network, configure it, and understand what assets and resources exist on the network, said Diane Miller, program director for the CyberPatriot competition at Northrop Grumman Corp. They'll also become more aware of what's going on in their network, including anticipating hackers and understanding what to do once their firewall has been penetrated.
In the final live round, the students manage a network of seven entities, including firewalls, and fight with the red team. The red team volunteer hackers inject attacks and other malicious events during the competition that students try to defend. The white team works with the student teams to resolve IT tickets, just like a real world network in a company, Miller said.
When they are attacked, the students figure out how to keep network services going, such as logging in, printing and communicating with other people.
Throughout the competition, the students improve their computer, people and security skills. They also practice leadership and communication skills. Each team chooses whether to have specific individuals research in-depth some aspect of the competition or if they want to be jacks-of-all-trades.
“The team-working aspects of it are really phenomenal because in the work place, that is how you work," Miller said. "You’re a member of a cyber defense team that is trying to figure out how to better protect your network, but also how to do the forensics: how to figure out 'How did they get into my network?' 'How do I kind of plug that hole in the future so I’m not as vulnerable?'”
After the competition, they talk to the red team to find out what they could have done to increase their score.
Even if students don't decide to major in computer science, IT or cybersecurity, they can use the general network functioning and security awareness they've learned in almost any technical discipline they pursue, Buckwalter said.
The United States makes national security a high priority, and that's why CyberPatriot is exposing students to cybersecurity principles and getting them excited about careers in the field.
They're not the only ones who become excited. The cyber defense teams at Northrop Grumman Corp., along with other industry members, volunteer as technical coaches throughout the competition.
"There’s tremendous excitement from our technologists who think this is the coolest thing, ’cause all they can see is a whole bunch of new cyber defense technologists coming on board," Miller said, "and they think that’s wonderful."
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