Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response

Creating a Real-World Competition to Inspire Tomorrow’s Cyber Workforce

April 10, 2018

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Cyberattacks pose an ongoing threat to the security of the nation’s energy critical infrastructure, so it’s now more important than ever to have a strong, agile workforce that is prepared to protect this infrastructure. Last Saturday, I had the pleasure of seeing some of today’s best and brightest minds in action at the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) third annual Cyber Defense Competition. For the first time, the competition was held at multiple National Laboratories: Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, IL, Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, TN, and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, WA.

For this competition, nearly 25 teams made up of almost 200 students from across the country competed in protecting from simulated cyberattacks on computer networks of natural gas companies. Unique to this competition, the teams of students not only designed their networks, but were also given a physical device that was programmed by the students to function at regularly scheduled intervals to simulate production of natural gas. If the pump stopped working, or if the lights on the miniature buildings went out, students knew their system was compromised. 

Beginning in the morning, Blue Teams of university students began defending their network infrastructure against Red Teams comprised of world-class cyber security professionals from industry, national labs, and the Army National Guard. At the same time, Green Team volunteers portrayed typical users of the system, trying to access the company web site and email.  The DOE CDC is different from most cyber competitions in its focus on the energy sector, the fact that the students have to build and protect a real system, and that they have to take care of simulated customers, even as the kept the lights on and the gas flowing.  For a full eight hours, these students did what many in private sector companies and government agencies do 24/7—protect the critical infrastructure of the United States.

Protecting critical energy infrastructure is essential to the security of the nation, and we need more cybersecurity professionals to help protect it.  ISACA, a non-profit information security advocacy group, predicts there will be a global shortage of two million cyber security professionals by 2019.  Events like the Cyber Defense Competition are great opportunities for DOE and its National Laboratories to work with colleges, universities and energy companies to build awareness of the cybersecurity career path, and encourage more students to take up this most important challenge.

As Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry said in a video played at the competition Saturday, “Competition breeds excellence. It brings out the best in us. And when America’s cyber experts are challenging one another on the virtual battlefield, we all win.” Through this competition, we are helping students better understand the challenges and rewards of protecting the nation’s critical energy infrastructure from the cyber threat.

I want to say thank you to everyone who participated in this year’s competition. I hope you enjoy the photographs from the event. And if you are a student considering a career in cybersecurity, or an industry member looking to contribute to workforce development of cybersecurity capability, stay tuned as we share more information in the coming months about our next competition, planned for December 1, 2018.

To learn more about OE’s cybersecurity vision and activities, visit the cybersecurity section of the OE website.

Photo of DAS Streit with winners
Photo courtesy of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
Photo of DAS Streit with a student competitor
Photo courtesy of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
DAS Streit presenting a medal to winners
Photo courtesy of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory