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Cybersecurity Championships Aim To Highlight Growing Field

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Upcoming competitions in Massachusetts and New York look to expand awareness of the growing field of cybersecurity.

The Cyber Aces championships in seven states are part of a nationwide online effort that have drawn more than 10,000 participants since fall. Allan Paller is the founder of Cyber Aces, a non-profit educational and workplace training group.

“New York Gov. Cuomo and Mass. Gov. Patrick were two of the most enthusiastic in supporting what we are trying to do,” Paller said. “I think they see cybersecurity as an economic development opportunity and also as a way to protect the institutions in their state.”

With recent cyber attacks against companies like Target, Paller says the problem isn’t a shortage of cybersecurity personnel or programs; it’s the small pool of candidates who have the rare skills to truly protect computer systems.

“It’s the people who have the hands-on skills to actually find the infections and the penetrations before they do a lot of damage,” he said. “Most people in the cybersecurity field, easily 90 percent, don’t have the skills to do that.”

More than 1,000 people tried out for Massachusetts’ championships May 3rd in Boston. Sarah Dumass is one of 67 who made the cut. Studying information technology at UMass Boston, Dumass says the rapid growth of the field attracted her.

“You might think that you have a completely secured system that nobody can get into and then you come back tomorrow and this guy’s gotten into it with something you wouldn’t have even thought of someone being able to do.”

Also set to travel to Boston for the competition is Eben Berry. He spent 13 years in the U.S. Army in the military police and infantry.

“You know having that sense of duty again that I had with the military when I wore the uniform,” Berry said. “Well I still have that sense of duty and it’s even pronounced from this cyber threat where things can be weaponized without even being in the same country.”

The former chief information security officer for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts started his own cybersecurity company.

“There’s a disconnection from senior leadership in understanding this more from a business challenge or problem,” he explained as a reason for starting the strategic consulting business. “It’s always been focused as technical one.”

The competition is the culmination of online courses, free for residents of each state. During the championships, competitors will be tested on a simulation system used by the U.S. military to train service members in network warfare. Dumass says you need to know offense and defense.

“From a defense point of view you try to take the low-hanging fruit out of the equation,” Dumass said. “You take the easiest things to get into and make them inaccessible. From the trying to get into somebody else’s system point of view, you’re looking for the low-hanging fruit first and then you work your way up the tree. If someone’s password is set to something that’s very easy to guess like ‘password123’ you’d look for that first then move your way up.”

Paller says the goal of Cyber Aces is to expand people’s access to the field to find those with talent and develop their skills.

“The best person we ever found came from a small school in a small city that had no computer programming classes because the school couldn’t find anyone to teach it,” Paller said. “Yet this person ran away with the competition. I interviewed this young man in Washington. And I said ‘What would you have done had you not found the competition?’ He said ‘Well I would have used these skills and developed them on the open internet. I guess it’s pretty cool that I found the competition, because otherwise I might’ve been a felon.”

Paller says there’s a concentration of cybersecurity experts near Washington, D.C. He adds places like the Multi-State Information Sharing and Analysis center in the Capital Region are also expanding. New York’s championships are May 17th in New York City.

Jim is WAMC’s Assistant News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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