A post-graduate degree in cyber security is a valued commodity among IT professionals these days. But research and theory are a bit different from practice and experience. Enter the cyber security student competition phenomenon – structured gamification events that place students into “real-world” scenarios where they test their skills against each other.
Competitions come in all shapes and sizes, but one of the most popular is the capture-the-flag (CTF) model. A good example of CTF competitions is the attack-defense game, in which participants are pitted against each other until a victor emerges.
“In an attack-defense CTF, competitors attempt to compromise systems and services with known vulnerabilities,” IBM ethical hacking test engineer John Clarke writes in his SecurityIntelligence.com article, “Capture the Flag Competitions Can Help Close the Security Skills Gap.”
“Once a team has compromised a system,” Clarke continues, “it must then defend that system against opposing teams. Participants perform the actions of a red team (attackers) and switch to the blue team (defenders) seamlessly. This game can be continuous and run for many days.”
Cyber Security Competitions: What Are They and What Role Do They Play?
According to Cybersecurity Ventures after reviewing the Herjavec Group-sponsored Cybersecurity Jobs Report 2018-2021, approximately 3.5 million cyber security positions (globally) will be unfilled by 2021. The need for trained professionals to fill these positions is only going to continue growing.
Students pursuing either an on-campus or online cyber security master’s degree program would do well to sign up for cyber security competitions to boost their knowledge of tackling realistic problems and beef up their resumés. Even students who work while pursuing their degree could benefit from competition experience through increased chances of promotion.
“Cybersecurity competitions are interactive, scenario-based events or exercises, in person or virtual, where individuals or teams engage in cybersecurity activities including methods, practices, strategy, policy and ethics,” explains “Cybersecurity Competitions” from the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education (NICE). “Competitions encourage players to practice, hone cybersecurity skills, and build confidence in a controlled, real-world environment…”
Among the benefits of competitions in the IT world, several directly affect professionals in the cyber security industry. NICE states that cyber security competitions:
- Encourage skill development and ethical practice.
- Provide access to mentoring, resources, and job opportunities.
- Offer opportunities to identify talent.
- Contribute to the knowledge-base of cyber security practitioners.
- Provide anytime-anywhere learning opportunities.
- Contribute to curriculum and educator capacity to meet cyber security needs.
Essentially, cyber security competitions bridge the gap between controlled classroom learning environments and the authentic situations in which new cyber security professionals might find themselves. The threat of cyber security is such that actual, real-world experience is almost as important as educational background.
Popular Annual Cyber Security Competitions
Cyber security competitions can take place either online or at a specific location and run the gamut from testing security flaws in business software to hacking into drone navigation systems. Typically, each contest will start with a quiz testing each participants knowledge of cyber security information. Then those who pass the quiz move on to the next round where their knowledge and skills will be put to the test.
Cyber security competitions have become popular and prestigious. As more private and public enterprises go online, however, countless smaller events can be expected to pop up, so students would do well to research the ones that align with their career aspirations. Some of the more well-known competitions include:
- The National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition (CCDC): According to its Raytheon-sponsored website, the CCDC’s mission is to “provide institutions with an information assurance or computer security curriculum a controlled, competitive environment to assess their student’s depth of understanding and operational competency in managing the challenges inherent in protecting a corporate network infrastructure and business information systems.”
- The US Cyber Challenge (USCC) Cyber Quests: The USCC describes Cyber Quests as “a series of fun but challenging online competitions allowing participants to demonstrate their knowledge in a variety of information security realms.” Quests focus on artifacts for analysis, potentially vulnerable sample web servers, forensic analyses, packet capture analyses, and similar scenarios.
- National Cyber League (NCL): Some ongoing cyber competitions are a combination of training and contest. As the NCL’s website explains, “One of the distinguishing factors of the NCL is the integration of learning objectives in all its activities. One of the main ways this is accomplished is by aligning customized content available in NCL Gymnasiums with simulations and games available in the NCL Stadium. This allows players to use the gym environment to develop knowledge and skills and then demonstrate these newly acquired skills in competitive individual and team play.”
- Global Cyberlympics: This international online competition defines its contest as “dedicated to finding the top computer network defense teams. This event tests the skills of information assurance professionals in teams of 4 to 6 people in the areas of ethical hacking, computer network defense and computer forensics.”
- Drone Wars Competition (BloomCon): Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Mathematical and Digital Sciences has teamed up with the U.S. Army to offer the Drone Wars competition. According to BloomCon, “The goal is to take over a Wi-Fi connected drone and fly it through an obstacle course in the shortest amount of time.”
Many other competitions are available and cyber security students should be alert to the possibilities, paying careful attention to registration deadlines and contest dates. And in most cases, even competitors who don’t win the grand prize still benefit professionally from their participation.
University of North Dakota’s Online Master of Science in Cyber Security (MSCS) Program
Cyber security professionals will be in high demand in both the private and public sectors over the next decade. Graduates of a master’s degree program who also have solid certifications, credentials and experience may find careers in some of the nation’s leading organizations. Participation in cyber security contests can boost resumés and make candidates more attractive to employers.
The University of North Dakota’s Higher Learning Commission accredited online cyber security master’s degree program is ranked in US News & World Report’s Top 25 Most Innovative Schools (2018), alongside such prestigious institutions as Stanford, Harvard, and MIT.
UND prepares students for careers in cyber security, with concentrations available in Autonomous Systems Cyber Security, Cyber Security and Behavior, Data Security and General Cyber Security.
For more information about UND’s MSCS online program, visit the program’s website.
Capture the Flag Competitions and the Security Jobs Gap – SecurityIntelligence.com
Cybersecurity Jobs Report 2018-2021 – CybersecurityVentures.com
Cybersecurity Competitions – NIST.gov
CCDC Mission – NationalCCDC.org
US Cyber Challenge: Cyber Quests Spring 2019 – USCC.CyberQuests.org
About NCL – NationalCyberLeague.org
About Global Cyberlympics – Cyberlympics.org
Drone Wars Competition – Intranet.BloomU.edu