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Play a Game - Get a Job: GCHQ's New Tool to Recruit Cyber Talent

It's time to get in the game. Just as in the 1984 movie 'The Last Starfighter,' being the best at a game could lead to a future that exceeds your wildest imagination. The British Intelligence equivalent to NSA is offering a challenge to play a game, with a great cyber job as the prize for winners.

by / August 23, 2014


 Picture of GCHQ Headquarters        Credit: © Crown copyright 2014


Three decades ago, there was a movie that surprised the world, captured hearts and motivated the dreams of young people everywhere. One synopsis goes something like this (from movie's trailer):

“Alex Rogin had a dream, to be as far away from here as possible…”

One man said, “You’ll get your chance, when it comes, you gotta grab it with both hands….”

“It started with a game, but it wasn’t just any game….”

And then, one night: “Sentara’s the name. We have to talk about a matter of utmost importance. Step into my office….” [Alex gets into the car.]

“I’ve seen them come and I’ve seen them go my boy, but you’re the best! Light years ahead of the competition….” [The car becomes a plane, and they are flying away into space.]

“Alex didn’t find his dream, his dream found him….”

“Welcome to Rilos, my boy. A world on the brink of destruction.”

“You were recruited by the Star League to defend the frontier against Zur and the Codan armada.”

“Of all the life forms, on all the planets, from all the galaxies….”

“One has been chosen….”

“Alex Rogin is… The Last Starfighter!”


Who says that sci-fi movies never come true?

The British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) has borrowed from a theme in “The Last Starfighter” to create a game to help find the best cyber talent available. In our Internet world that we often call cyberspace, the chosen cyberfighters will, in fact, be defending society from potential “virtual armadas.”

GCHQ Press Announcement Details

The GCHQ press announcement started this way {Note that many words are spelled in UK English}:

“GCHQ will today call on the UK public to protect a fictitious aerospace technology company threatened by imminent attack from cyber terrorists. Assignment: Astute Explorer is the latest game from the Cyber Security Challenge UK, who run an inspirational series of national competitions aimed at attracting talented people into the profession and informing them about cyber security careers. It gives members of the public a chance to act like a GCHQ operative, using their cyber security skills to investigate and fix the vulnerabilities of a global defence company ahead of a forewarned cyber-attack.
Earlier this year the Cyber Security Challenge launched its 2014/15 programme of online and face-to-face cyber games by introducing a new enemy, The Flag Day Associates, via a threat video that warned of future cyber attacks against the UK. As the Challenge's first recurring characters, the investigation and defence against this new nemesis forms the basis of this year's competitions.”

The concept for using open competitions to find the best and brightest talent is not new. Indeed, the Michigan Cyber Range has had a test (but not really an interactive game) for several months that help to find the best and brightest to become volunteers for the Michigan Cyber Civilian Corps.

You can play the GCHQ cyberchallenge game at this website. Here is some more information on the competitions.

"The Cyber Security Challenge is a series of national competitions, learning programmes, and networking initiatives designed to identify, inspire and enable more EU citizens resident in the UK to become cyber security professionals.

Established to bolster the national pool of cyber skills, it offers a unique programme of activities to introduce sufficient numbers of appropriately skilled individuals to learning and career opportunities in the profession."

What about Americans?

In the USA, the Cyber Challenge concept is popular all over the country as well. Many states have held competitions. The sponsors are listed as the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Microsoft, Accenture and many others.

According to their website:

"The mission of U.S. Cyber Challenge (USCC) is to significantly reduce the shortage in the cyber workforce by serving as the premier program to identify, attract, recruit and place the next generation of cybersecurity professionals. USCC’s goal is to find 10,000 of America’s best and brightest to fill the ranks of cybersecurity professionals where their skills can be of the greatest value to the nation."

The USCC offers cyber camps, competitions and a virtual community to aid in protecting vital cyber assets. For example, they offer “CyberQuests” as well.

“CyberQuests are a series of fun but challenging on-line competitions allowing participants to demonstrate their knowledge in a variety of information security realms. Each quest features an artifact for analysis, along with a series of quiz questions. Some quests focus on a potentially vulnerable sample web server as the artifact, challenging participants to identify its flaws using vulnerability analysis skills. Other quests are focused around forensic analysis, packet capture analysis, and more. The quests have varying levels of difficulty and complexity, with some quests geared toward beginners, while others include more intermediate and ultimately advanced material.”

Final Thoughts

Someone, somewhere will be motivated to take the GCHQ (or similar USA counterpart) cyber challenge and will be chosen. Expect more governments and private sector companies around the world to start using similar talent acquisition techniques. There may even be a new professional discipline in recruiting via gamification.

Still, I haven’t seen any offers quite so tempting as the one now on the table by GCHQ. Play a game (exceedingly well), and get a job. The idea (and movie) may be over thirty years old, but the application is new.

The question is: Could you be the next Alex Rogan?

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Dan Lohrmann Chief Security Officer & Chief Strategist at Security Mentor Inc.

Daniel J. Lohrmann is an internationally recognized cybersecurity leader, technologist, keynote speaker and author.

During his distinguished career, he has served global organizations in the public and private sectors in a variety of executive leadership capacities, receiving numerous national awards including: CSO of the Year, Public Official of the Year and Computerworld Premier 100 IT Leader.
Lohrmann led Michigan government’s cybersecurity and technology infrastructure teams from May 2002 to August 2014, including enterprisewide Chief Security Officer (CSO), Chief Technology Officer (CTO) and Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) roles in Michigan.

He currently serves as the Chief Security Officer (CSO) and Chief Strategist for Security Mentor Inc. He is leading the development and implementation of Security Mentor’s industry-leading cyber training, consulting and workshops for end users, managers and executives in the public and private sectors. He has advised senior leaders at the White House, National Governors Association (NGA), National Association of State CIOs (NASCIO), U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), federal, state and local government agencies, Fortune 500 companies, small businesses and nonprofit institutions.

He has more than 30 years of experience in the computer industry, beginning his career with the National Security Agency. He worked for three years in England as a senior network engineer for Lockheed Martin (formerly Loral Aerospace) and for four years as a technical director for ManTech International in a US/UK military facility.

Lohrmann is the author of two books: Virtual Integrity: Faithfully Navigating the Brave New Web and BYOD for You: The Guide to Bring Your Own Device to Work. He has been a keynote speaker at global security and technology conferences from South Africa to Dubai and from Washington, D.C., to Moscow.

He holds a master's degree in computer science (CS) from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and a bachelor's degree in CS from Valparaiso University in Indiana.

Follow Lohrmann on Twitter at: @govcso

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