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Can the ‘CSI Effect’ Help Tackle the Cyber Security Skills Gap?

Jenny O'ConnellJenny O'Connell
Warning: Links within the following article may contain spoilers.

Much (virtual) ink has been spent describing the cyber security ‘skills gap’—the lack of experienced candidates available to fill the ever expanding number of security related roles that organizations are attempting to recruit for.

Governments, and their agencies, have now identified the problem as so serious; it threatens many countries’ national security and global competitive edge. Consequently, ever-increasing pots of cash are being committed to identifying and nurturing people with the potential to become tomorrow’s analysts, SOC staffers, security architects, CISOs, and so on.

This is great news, but it’s a long-term project, and it seems that currently most teenagers still aren’t getting enough information about cyber security career options.

The potential ‘Mr. Robot’ effect?

Let’s put a pin in that issue for a moment, and consider another recent trend— the rising profile of cyber security, and cyber crime, in the mainstream media. Of course, this includes the news; from Snowden to Silk Road to TalkTalk, interest in privacy issues, data breaches and online crime has certainly increased in the last few years.

That awareness appears to have seeped into other areas of the media as well. Use of technology has long been a staple of glossy forensics dramas (NCIS, CSI, Bones, et al). But many recent series have moved away from purely portraying gadgetry as supporting the traditional criminal forensics process; storylines involving hacking and computer forensics as central themes have become evermore common.

And now, it seems, cyber has outgrown its best-supporting-actor status, and graduated to starring in shows of its own, with the advent of programs like CSI:Cyber and Mr. Robot.

Now, full disclosure, this blogger has not watched either CSI:Cyber or Mr. Robot. This piece is not going to be commenting on the technical accuracy, or entertainment value, of these productions. In any event, plenty of reviewers have already made their views of CSI:Cyber quite clear, and it’s not a pretty picture. Mr. Robot has had a much warmer reception. You can watch the shows and decide for yourself, but it’s fair to say that criminal forensics dramas in general have come under fire in the past for their depiction of forensic science, investigative procedure and technology.

Mind the gap

So, let’s get back to the original issue, the cyber security skills gap. Forensic dramas have been blamed for the so-called ‘CSI Effect’, whereby interest (and presumed knowledge) of forensic science among lay-people increased dramatically once these programs become popular. This even lead to reported changes in the expectations of jurors involved in criminal trials.

But here’s the crux – another interesting manifestation of the ‘CSI Effect’, was the jump in applications to study forensic science at degree level. Can we expect to see a similar boost in numbers for tech courses? Well, if television managed to glamorize a profession that involves handling no small amount of bodily fluids, why not?

Which can only be a good thing, right? After all, we’ve spent all this time and money trying to address the problem, what’s the harm in getting a little free help?

Well, the ‘CSI Effect’ has proven to be something of a double-edge sword. While more people are now studying forensic science, many arrive with unrealistic expectations of what a job in the field will actually be like.

As the old adage goes, “there’s no such thing as bad publicity”. Now that probably isn’t completely true, but if more people consider a career in cyber security thanks to a few works of fiction, however skewed, perhaps that’s something we can work with.


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