NSA kicks in scholarship funds to boost cyber challenge

Thursday - 10/6/2011, 7:30pm EDT

Chris Inglis, NSA's deputy director, talks to WFED's Jared Serbu

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Organizers of a fledgling event designed to get students excited about cybersecurity are getting some big help from a big name in the field.

The Maryland Cyber Challenge and Conference will host its first events later this month in Baltimore, Md., putting high school, college and professional teams through real-world cyber tests, and the National Security Agency is kicking in $86,000 in scholarship prize money to help boost interest in the competition.

The motivation, according to Chris Inglis, NSA's deputy director, is partially that the agency wants to be a good neighbor. And it's part selfish.

"The creation of additional people who have some ability in science, technology engineering and math (STEM) is a worthy cause in its own right," he said in an interview with Federal News Radio. "But I would not hesitate to say that we're also an employer of those skills, and so if we can increase the flow of people who have those skills into the workplace, we profit from that."

Inglis said NSA has so far been able to attract the talent it needs to meet its recruiting targets, but doing so is always a challenge, and competition for a workforce with a strong STEM background will only increase.

"There aren't a lot of people who have the skills necessary to work for the likes of Google or Yahoo or IBM or Microsoft or Northrop Grumman," he said. "NSA competes in that pool for that limited population, so we need to increase the number of people who do that work. When I look ahead I see that the competition only gets stiffer. Our nation trains not just U.S. citizens, but people from all over the world. We need to make sure that the United States is continuing to push its own students into those schools so we can compete fairly for what ultimately is going to be a rich proceed for the nations who are able to generate the kind of skills necessary to prosper in an increasingly technical world."

Though NSA has been headquartered at Fort Meade, Md. for most of its 60-year history, new neighbors have helped create a cybersecurity center of gravity in the region. The new U.S. Cyber Command, created in 2010, also calls Fort Meade home, as does the Defense Information Systems Agency, which finished its move to the post this year. Private-sector cyber expertise has flowed in as well.

"I think that's a net gain for NSA," Inglis said. "NSA is not simply the number of people we can hire, we very much have to leverage the skills that are in the private sector and academia around us and work hard to collaborate there."

NSA's participation in the cyber challenge is part of what Inglis described as an increasing public face for the famously secret intelligence agency. He says the agency had also made a concerted effort in recent years to stimulate interest in cyber early in students' lives.

"We need to stimulate some interest in these careers well before people make their changes about what their majors might be in college," he said. "That creates a much larger pool of applicants, not just for us, but anybody who needs them, and ultimately everybody benefits."

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This story is part of Federal News Radio's daily Cybersecurity Update. For more cybersecurity news, click here.