Computer Pros Will Hack Their Way to a New Job During Cyber Aces Competition

A statewide challenge is bringing together some of the top cyber security professionals to test their skills.

Photo via Cyber Aces on Facebook

Photo via Cyber Aces on Facebook

At a time when high-profile breaches at businesses and institutions have made national headlines, an elite group of cyber security sleuths will gather in Boston to compete in an exclusive event that will give them a chance to get picked up by agencies looking for people skilled in safeguarding a computer system.

Sponsored by Governor Deval Patrick’s office, on May 3, the Cyber Aces State Championship, held at UMass Boston, will bring together 70 contestants—ranging from high school and college students, to members of the armed services and everyday jobseekers—to display their skills in an attempt to fill vacant job positions in the field of cyber attack defense. “[These are people who] can get inside of a computer and see where malicious actors have gone and what they’ve done, and get them out. It’s forensics but it’s much deeper,” said Alan Paller, founder of Cyber Aces. “These are open competitions for people who may have learned to experiment on cyber security on their own to show the state their skills… we think all 70 are likely to be very valuable if they want to work in cyber security. It gives them bragging rights, and shapes what jobs they will get offered.”

Paller wouldn’t call them “hackers’ directly, but admitted that these particular individuals are, “security defenders, but the way they prove that is by showing how good they are at offense.”

Part of Cyber Aces philosophy is to teach students and other tech-minded individuals how to use their powers for good, rather than to tap into networks to do harm to people’s systems. “Knowing how to make a system secure requires knowing what makes a system vulnerable,” according to the organization. Finding those vulnerabilities will be part of the competition’s challenge, as participants race to find flaws in real-time.

The governor’s office first announced its partnership with Cyber Aces, a non-profit group, back in September of 2013, when they solicited sign ups for the competition. Officials said by teaming up with the organization it would bring attention to the critical shortage of skilled cyber-security professionals in the industry, and drudge up talent so that they could be placed in the proper job slots in both the public and private sector. “Cyber security represents both a challenge and an opportunity for our Commonwealth and our nation. It’s an issue with tremendous national security implications and a field with unmet demand,” according to Patrick.

This weekend’s head-to-head matchup, called “NetWars,” was preceded by a series of online challenges and tutorials that contestants could take. The top cyber security contenders were then whittled down by officials from Cyber Aces, and hand-picked to compete in the upcoming competition. “This isn’t playing at games, this is simulating actual systems that need to be penetrated and evaluated. In getting eligible for this, they proved they were good at the foundations. This proves they are good at the actual acts,” said Paller.

The event will be followed up by an online career fair in June, said Paller, where those who proved their unique talents will get a chance to connect with governmental agencies and banks looking for help keeping their systems guarded. “There’s a new pot of potential cyber security talent. In June we will have a virtual career fair, where people from the national defense are looking for people with this type of talent,” he said.

According to Patrick’s office, in order to further fill the jobs gap in this particular profession, the state plans to have a Cyber Academy in Massachusetts, to certify those with the highest potential and aptitude for training and placement.