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CyberForce Competition Challenges Collegiate Students To Outwit Cyber Attackers

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Argonne will host DOE’s CyberForce® Competition, which inspires and develops budding energy sector cybersecurity experts. This year, college students will compete to harden and secure a hydropower plant’s systems from cyberattack.

On Nov. 13, college and university students from across the United States will attempt to thwart a simulated cyberattack in the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) CyberForce Competition. The event, led by DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory, will convene virtually in 2021.

The CyberForce Competition is part of DOE’s CyberForce® Program, which seeks to inspire and develop the next generation of energy sector cyber defenders. These students can learn and practice skills that will be relevant if they enter a career safeguarding the nation’s critical infrastructure, including power plants and other energy facilities.

The cybersecurity field faces a shortfall of qualified professionals to fill nearly half a million open jobs. These positions usually take 21 percent longer to fill than other information technology jobs, according to CyberSeek, a project that tracks the cybersecurity job market.

Each CyberForce Competition centers around an interactive, scenario-based event where participants get to test their cyber defense skills in real time. In this year’s scenario, participants will be challenged to harden and secure systems of a hydropower company — along with the systems of one of its recently acquired subsidiaries — against a malicious cyberattack, all while maintaining service for customers. The 2021 competition is a partnership between Argonne and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories.

“In the past decade, the U.S. energy sector has become a key target for malicious actors looking to disrupt our energy supplies, economy and everyday lives,” said Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Puesh Kumar of DOE’s Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response (CESER). ​“Through CyberForce, we are empowering the future energy cybersecurity workforce with the skills they need to defend and protect critical energy infrastructure.”

Hosted in person at Argonne and several other DOE national labs from 2016 to 2019, the CyberForce Competition went virtual in 2020. Eight teams joined the first event — today, the number of competing institutions exceeds 125.

“CyberForce started as a single, small competition, but interest grew fast, and it became clear we could be doing much more. That’s why we added opportunities to the program this year,” said Amanda Joyce, CyberForce Program director and cybersecurity analysis group lead at Argonne.

The newly expanded program includes Conquer the Hill, a series of engaging, interactive virtual mini competitions that provide students with more chances to learn about cybersecurity topics and test their skills. In the Conquer the Hill: Reign Edition competition, held on Sept. 18, Kyle Sferrazza of Northeastern University won the virtual skirmish-based mission that tested participants’ skills with a timed capture-the-flag competition. Cameron Whitehead of the University of Central Florida won the Adventurer Edition, the first Conquer the Hill event, on July 18.

CyberForce will continue in 2021 with its series of virtual challenges, monthly webinars and the first CyberForce Virtual Career Fair. The Virtual Career Fair on Nov. 16 will feature opportunities for 2021 CyberForce Program participants to interact with representatives from the program’s sponsors, including Microsoft, ComEd and Exelon. Also, CyberForce will debut its new workforce portal this fall, known as the Cyber Aptitude, Skills, Training and Learning Environment (CASTLE). It will offer current and aspiring cybersecurity students a chance to better understand their skills, check job boards, communicate with various industry partners and learn about upcoming events and training opportunities.

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