Teaching the next generation of cybersecurity professionals

controlling weapons. In the game, they contain information that proves a team “captured” that “flag,” with which the team is awarded a certain number of points, based on how difficult that particular challenge was.

There are many Capture the Flag competitions held throughout the country, which helps make our event the most popular of the week’s six competitions. It is also the most grueling: Teams must work for 36 hours straight, testing each participant’s ability to stay focused enough to create new solutions to emerging problems.

This type of challenge-based learning is vital in a field in which new threats emerge regularly. It also instills in students an adversarial mindset, which is an essential quality for successful security professionals. Learning the different ways to break a system firsthand is a vital first step to learning how to secure it.

Adapting on the fly
In one CSAW competition, the Embedded Security Challenge, students break into teams that must be able to work quickly at both attacking and defending each other from various threats. This is an attack/defense game like Capture the Flag, but focuses on vulnerabilities in hardware, rather than software. Last year, competitors were tasked with altering the digital results of a mock election – exposing potentially real threats to everyday elections.

This ability quickly to adapt as new threats are perceived is a top priority for security personnel. That’s a key element of all CSAW competitions – the idea that successful cybersecurity is not limited to mastering what’s known. Rather, students and professionals alike must constantly push their abilities to intercept future threats in an ever-evolving field. The cybersecurity industry — and all operations that rely on it, from small businesses to major military installations — depend on its practitioners’ ability to innovate. Every year, we change the types of challenges to reflect new threats, such as the recent rise of ransomware, for example.

Cybersecurity efforts must extend well beyond national borders; this year CSAW will dramatically increase its international activities. A collaboration with NYU Abu Dhabi and the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur will allow teams in the Middle East, India, North Africa, and the United States to compete simultaneously. The competitors in these games in an educational setting, in the United States and around the world, will — not long from now — be the protectors of our most sensitive personal and national data. We need them to be prepared.

Nasir Memon is Professor of Computer Science and Engineering, New York University. This article is published courtesy of The Conversation (under Creative Commons-Attribution / No derivative).