It started with Michael Coppola taking things apart at the age of five: the remote control, his mother's house lamps, the family's VCR. He was curious about how things worked. By the time he was in fourth grade, he moved on to software. After building Web sites for his parents and their friends, Coppola, now 17, decided to try his hand at hacking. "When you have this passion for technology, you're not satisfied with knowing how to use something, you want to know how it works," he says. What started out as mere curiosity now makes this Connecticut high-school senior a rare—and highly valued—commodity: a hacker in the making.
While billions of dollars are being spent to secure U.S. cyberspace, the number of elite cybersecurity experts needed to protect and traffic this area for the government and the private sector is dangerously inadequate. The Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative (CNCI) launched by President George W. Bush lists the need for better cybereducation and more experts as part of 12 core initiatives, but its large-scale implementation will take time. According to national-security authorities, time is something we don't really have.
By one estimate the United States currently has about 1,000 elite experts. It needs 20,000.
Until now, the formal recruiting and training of a national cybercorps has been haphazard at best. Fortunately, for the Michael Coppolas among us, private companies and government agencies are amping up their efforts to find and educate a new generation of cyber whiz kids. By sponsoring national cyber competitions akin to American Idol, the goal is to quickly bring at least 10,000 young tech minds into the fold. Among the organizers leading the way is Alan Paller, cofounder and research director of the Sans Institute, a cybersecurity school.
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