Wanted: Whizz kids to defend the internet

US campaigns to steer youthful techies into careers defending the internet are gaining steam.

The federal government, education officials and giant military contractors are collaborating to recruit a new class of tech professional specifically trained to battle data thieves, online scammers and cyberspies.

The recruitment tool of choice? Competitions that pit tech-savvy youths in mock warfare against professional hackers.

This year, the Collegiate Cyber Defence Competition drew teams from 83 colleges and universities, up from five schools in 2005.

Boeing hired seven contestants to help defend its internal networks, which are prime targets for corporate and military spies.

"Our goal is to increase the opportunities for young cyberexperts to exercise and demonstrate their passion for this career field," said Alan Greenberg, Boeing's technical director of cyber and information solutions.

A similar contest that accepts high school pupils, the US Cyber Challenge, has a goal of finding 10,000 "cybersecurity top guns."

Promotional materials tout bragging rights for beating bad guys.

"We're building the pipeline that will produce our future cyberguardians," said Alan Paller, research director of SANS Institute, a co-sponsor of the event.

Meanwhile, community colleges and universities are expanding vocational training and academic degree programmes.

Enrollment in two-year programs participating in CyberWatch, a consortium of Mid-Atlantic colleges focused on cybersecurity training, has jumped about 66 percent in each of the past two years, said CyberWatch co-director Casey O'Brien.

Students include recent high school graduates, as well as adults seeking to change or advance their careers.

"People are starting to get that the success of these programmes is absolutely critical to the future of our country," said O'Brien.

Initiatives are even getting under way to boost awareness among grade schoolers.

Two Maryland school districts, Baltimore County and Howard County, just launched a pilot programme offering "information assurance" as a career track.

Cybersecurity scenarios will be worked into the school curriculum, said Davina Pruitt-Mentle, CyberWatch curriculum and outreach director.

One math exercise asks pupils to calculate the total permutations of a four-digit PIN. Educators hope to raise security awareness among grade school pupils immersed in social networks and texting.

"The cybersecurity piece hasn't really been on anyone's radar," said Pruitt-Mentle.

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