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Teens hone hacking skills during cyber-contests

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Posted: Thursday, October 10, 2013 4:30 am

Computer-savvy teenagers are testing their skills in cyber-contests designed to teach them how to protect the government and private companies from hackers.

The events are sprouting up across the country under the guidance of federal officials who are keen to boost their agencies’ computer-defense forces and high school teachers who want to prepare their students for high-paying IT jobs.

At Baltimore’s Loyola Blakefield prep school, a team of students meets twice a week after classes to practice for the Maryland Cyber Challenge.

At the event, they’ll have to debug viruses from their computer and defeat mock attacks by cybercriminals played by IT professionals.

“They work together as problem-solvers, and they really like the challenge,” said Steve Morrill, the school’s director of technology and coach of the cybersecurity team.

The contests include “Toaster Wars,” an online hacking game sponsored by the National Security Agency, and CyberPatriot, a national challenge that has grown from nine teams in 2009 to more than 1,200 this year.

Stop ‘black hats’

During the final round of the 2013 competition, staged in March at the Gaylord National Resort at National Harbor in Maryland, Kevin Houk and five classmates sat in a darkened room, huddled around a monitor and looking for any sign of attack. The teenagers, who at the time attended Marshall Academy, a program that draws students from public schools around Fairfax County, Va., were trying to prevent “black hat” programmers from activating hidden viruses in the students’ computer network. The Marshall group had to protect its servers from outside intrusions and defuse ticking time bombs that may have been lurking inside.

“It’s a lot like gaming, because you don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Houk, who took computer classes at Marshall Academy. “You always have to keep on your toes.”

Now a freshman at Penn State University, Houk hopes to become a cyberwarrior, someday protecting corporate or national assets and information from foreign invaders or meddlesome hackers. “Cyberwarfare is the war of tomorrow, and we don’t have enough soldiers on the cyber battlefield,” he said. “I just want to be one of those.”

Cyberwarrior force

The Pentagon’s Cyber Command is planning to expand its cyberwarrior force from 900 to nearly 5,000. But there’s a hitch: Applicants must have exceptionally clean records. That means no arrests or expulsions for hacking into school computers or shutting down Web sites.

While students are taught advanced computer skills during the lead-up to these cyber-contests, they also receive training in computer ethics, according to Scott Kennedy, assistant vice president and principal systems engineering manager at SAIC, a defense contractor and computer security provider based in Northern Virginia. So serious are contest organizers about fair play that some students were kicked out for getting into other teams’ computers or defacing websites.

Houk and other students interviewed at the Gaylord contest said they know the line between a white hat and a black hat.

“We are trained in offensive security, or ethical hacking, but we do know how to monitor a network like a school and watch all the traffic going through,” Houk said. “And if it’s encrypted, we do know how to break that.”

‘Gray hat’

The adviser to Marshall’s team calls himself a “gray hat,” someone who knows the good and bad sides of cyberwarfare and security. Ryan Walters said he got into trouble as a young man for hacking into computers without permission and was given a choice by a judge to either go to jail or join the military.

“I joined the Air Force,” said Walters, who now runs TerraWi, a small startup specializing in security for mobile devices. “Six months later, I was doing cyberdefense for the military. I became very good at what I do because I understand how the bad guy thinks. I went from black hat to gray hat. I could never be a white hat.”

Walters, who has more than 60 students enrolled in his after-school cyberdefense program at Marshall, said he teaches his students “the black-hat mentality; I’m not teaching them how to be bad guys.”

Morrill, the Loyola Blakefield coach, also is concerned that some of the skills the students are learning could cause damage.

“I tell them: ‘You guys better be on the good side, and you can earn a good living,’” Morrill said. “If we approach students at a younger age and instill those values, the country is going to be better off.”

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