Training the Next Line of Cyber-Defense

By Sean Cavanagh — July 22, 2009 2 min read

Tom Luce, a former top education official in the Bush administration, argues in an online essay that the recent “cyber attacks” on Web sites in the United States and South Korea provide another reason for this country to recommit to math and science education.

Luce, who is now the CEO of the National Math and Science Initiative, cited several examples of cyber-hacking that, if they don’t keep you up at night, will probably make you a bit uneasy. Cyber-spies, possibly working out of China and Russia, recently penetrated the U.S. utility grid and left behind computer programs that would allow them to disrupt service; a member of the U.S. Senate’s intelligence committee said his office computers have been hacked three times recently; and Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently said that hackers had stolen electronic specifications for the Pentagon’s new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter project and infiltrated the Air Force’s air-traffic-control system.

Gates has said plans are under way for the United States to increase the number of cyber-experts it can train. But Luce worries that finding people with those skills won’t be easy. He points to the middling U.S. results on international tests of math and science, but perhaps more to the point, he cites the results of the recent Top Coder Open, an international competition supported by the U.S.'s own super-secret National Security Agency, as a way of identifying top programming talent. The most skilled competitors were from China and Russia, says Luce, pictured at right. “They dominated in every category from writing algorithms to designing software components,” he writes in the essay, published in the Huffington Post, an online site. “How many of the 70 finalists were from the U.S.? Only two.”

“Out of 4,200 contestants, China entered 894, India 704, and Russia 380. The U.S. trailed with 234 contestants, just above Poland, which had 214 entrants. Egypt had 145 contestants and the Ukraine 128. The winner was an 18-year-old from China.”

It might seem hard to fathom that U.S. teenagers and young adults can’t keep up with the technological wizardry of their peers in other countries. I mean, if you’re over the age of 30, the tech skills of students moving through the pipeline can seem pretty dazzling. But Luce seems to be describing a very elite set of computer and math and science abilities, and a concern that the United States is falling short. What do you make of his argument?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.