New Jersey invites vets to compete for cyber residencies at key institutions

By Aliya Sternstein

January 14, 2013

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has invited service members returning from the Middle East, students and career switchers to join a cyber battle this week for a spot at a community college program with residencies at critical sector companies, state officials told Nextgov.

The Brookdale Community College CyberCenter, similar to a medical teaching hospital, will assign aspiring network defenders to temporary posts at banks, the FBI and other organizations vital to American life, according to organizers.  

In December, Christie’s office sent New Jersey Armed Forced veterans a letter encouraging them to participate in this week’s contest to win scholarships and recognition. Details on next steps, curricula and the full array of benefits were made public over the weekend, state officials said on Sunday.  

This development is a twist in a decade-long struggle to persuade raw talent to enter the short-staffed cybersecurity workforce. Many natural hackers of all ages spend their free time gaming and tinkering with code, but pursue more traditional degrees or computer science research positions.

The journey toward job placement begins on Tuesday with a six-week online competition, said Alan Paller, co-chair of a Homeland Security Department task force that broached the CyberCenter concept. The top 60 scorers will face off on March 23 at Brookdale using “military-grade” computer simulations to fend off intruders and overtake other network targets, he said. Among the finalists, about 10 to 20 will be selected to enroll in in the center.

As of Saturday, 509 individuals in New Jersey had signed up for the online challenge, said Paller, research director for the SANS Institute, a computer security training organization. “This is a pilot.  If it works the idea will be to have parallel programs across the nation and thousands of students going through them,” he said. The effort is still a work in progress, Paller added.

Some critics of this sort of community college instruction say graduates become the equivalent of volunteer first responders, not computer security aficionados.   

“There is a clear difference between training and education,” Gene Spafford, executive director of Purdue University’s CERIAS, a highly-regarded cyber research outfit, told The Daily. “The difference is that training is where you teach people first aid and maybe some who are good will become EMTs; education is where you produce brain surgeons. The focus of the government is they want a whole bunch of people who know first aid.”

The classroom requirements for CyberCenter students include obtaining certifications accredited by the American National Standards Institute, and taking courses in defending computers against adversaries and attacking adversary systems. They also must attend lessons in one “target area” of their choosing: advanced forensics; advanced penetration testing -- authorized hacking to identify computer vulnerabilities; and advanced secure configurations.

Pupils who complete their studies then undergo a six-month residency at a critical sector organization. One placement will be at a New Jersey company running a miniature city that cyber gurus destabilize by infiltrating the town’s electricity supply systems and other infrastructure networks. This year, Air Force personnel are expected to practice securing and attacking the “CyberCity,” which is affiliated with SANS, The Washington Post first reported in November 2012.

The New Jersey competition is free and open to all veterans, current service members, job seekers, New Jersey high school students and New Jersey college students.  

(Image via L.E.MORMILE /

By Aliya Sternstein

January 14, 2013