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Should You Need a License to Practice Cybersecurity?

Maksim Kabakou/

The government should sponsor a national body to license cyber professionals and authorize cyber certifications, and then spin it off into an independent consortium, a military faculty member at the Pentagon's National Defense University said.

A body akin to an American Medical Association is needed to authorize individuals to practice as cyber professionals and to revoke that license when necessary, said Lt. Col. Sean C.G. Kern, an NDU information security professor.  In order for that body to possess authority, it would have to be federally funded, at least initially.

This model also would include sub-associations for specialty areas, such as digital forensics, that would pick which certifications currently offered by various firms should be required. The Homeland Security Department and National Institute of Standards and Technology have carved out 31 cyber specialties

It might not be hard to imagine an American Cybersecurity Association, but upending the cyber certification industry would ruffle some feathers. 

For decades, entities such as (ISC)2, the SANS Institute and the Information Systems Audit and Control Association have created their own certification programs. 

"The hardest part is the certification piece because there’s a commercial aspect to that," Kern said during an interview, after speaking at a cyber conference hosted by the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association. "People want to make money." 

Today, the knowledge for a given specialty usually doesn't map to a specific certification. "I would have to own potentially three or four certifications to be effective in one specialty. Now is that what we want our workforce to do?" he questioned.

This is not a new debate

In 2010, the Center for Strategic and International Studies proposed establishing a nonprofit governance body with representatives from the private sector, academia and the government to administer certifications and develop criteria for evaluating existing certification programs.

But (ISC)2 officials argued that overhauling the certification system would undo hard-won progress in educating the cyber workforce and exacerbate cyber staff shortages. "Our organization has worked closely with government and anytime that they believe they need a more technical, specific credential, we sit down and build it," (ISC)2 Executive Director W. Hord Tipton said at the time. 

Kern sees a workaround that would not force credentialing organizations to close shop.

In some cases, a specialty association might find that an existing certification program is a one-to-one match. "Where you find organizations that have a very unique niche, you license them as the standard for certification," Kern said. "Then they have the sole right to do that."

In other instances, an association might ask multiple credential providers to collaborate on a new certification that is similar to their traditional offerings, he said.

"Take penetration testing," a technique for finding security holes in technology, "there's a handful of those certifications and there are fairly similar skills" for that work, Kern said. Several providers could cooperate on developing a common body of knowledge and then the association would license each of them to deliver certification, training and testing. 

"If you’re certifying across 31 specialties, there’s plenty of business. No one is going to go out of business. That’s the big part, these guys are driven by profit right now," he said.  

(Image via Maksim Kabakou/

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