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The interest comes as companies increasingly face a variety of threats posed by online attackers. In May, antispam firm Blue Security got chased off the Internet by an irate spammer that attacked the company's Web site, service network, affiliates and clients. Several security groups warned companies that a previously unknown flaw in Microsoft Word was being actively exploited to attack specific companies. These attacks build on a particularly bad year for privacy in 2005, when more than 52 million consumer accounts were placed at risk.

While academics, security experts and government officials have previously discussed turning ad-hoc hacking contests into a more formal competition, the seed for the idea failed to take root outside of the military until a workshop held at University of Texas in San Antonio in the spring of 2004.

Called together by Lance Hoffman, a computer science professor at George Washington University, and Ronald Dodge, a Lt. Colonel and professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, a group of computer-security professors and graduate students discussed the future of such exercises.

Everyone agreed that the competitions should be formalized, but one participant - Greg B. White, director of the Center for Infrastructure Assurance and Security (CIAS) at the University of Texas at San Antonio - feared that the process would stall.

"The first thing that happens when you get a bunch of academics together is they want to form a committee," White said. "We - three schools in Texas - decided to jump start the process and have a regional competition."

Along with Texas A&M and UT Austin, White created a regional Texas competition pitting five schools against each other in a three-day competition in April 2005. Taking lessons from the military's CDX competitions, the annual Capture the Flag tournament at DEFCON, and a few smaller academic exercises across the country, the universities decided to create a defense-focused contest, and called it the Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition.

The main focus of the collegiate competition, as well as the high school contest, is locking down an insecure business network in the face of an attack.

"When students come in, they are given a network that is up and running, but we don't guarantee that it is secure," White said. "When a student graduates and joins the commercial sector, that is what they are going to face most likely - an insecure network."

Both the college and high-school competitions use a neutral team of attackers, known as a Red Team, to represent online criminals that might infiltrate a company's network. An automated scoring system keeps track of the reliability of any services required by the current scenario, the success in detecting and mitigating an attack, and special bonuses for meeting seemingly random business goals from the fictitious company's management.

Random events also spice up the competition, said Doug Jacobson, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering for Iowa State, who ran the High School Cyber Defense Competition.

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