The Edmond Sun

Features

October 9, 2013

Teens hone hacking skills in contests

WASHINGTON — 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, which is being held this week at the Baltimore Convention Center. 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," says 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.

During the final round of the 2013 competition, staged last 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."

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 have been kicked out for getting into other teams' computers or defacing Web sites.

Houk and other students interviewed at the Gaylord contest say 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."

The advisor 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 start-up 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."

Walters says revelations about leaks by Edward Snowden about the NSA's domestic surveillance programs forced him and other teachers to revamp their lesson plans. In fact, during the summer, two of his students worked at Washington area defense contractors as systems administrators, the type of job that Snowden once held, albeit not with the same access to classified data.

"I teach that it's a bad thing" to leak, Walters said.

The growing interest in cyberdefense contests for young people comes at a time when Pentagon officials are warning about computer attacks from China and other nations.

And it's not just the government that is vulnerable. Utilities, power companies, tech firms, banks, Congress, universities and media organizations all have faced attacks in the past few years. In August, the Web sites of several news organizations, including The Washington Post, were hacked by a group calling itself the Syrian Electronic Army, which supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

"The threat has evolved so quickly," said Diane Miller, director of information security and cyber initiatives for Northrop Grumman, which is a lead sponsor of the CyberPatriot contest. "It really has created a sense of urgency."

Northrop Grumman has hired 40 former CyberPatriot participants, including four who are working in the company's cybersecurity control center. "I tell the students that it's a position of trust," she said.

While most experts agree that introducing young minds to advanced computer skills is a good thing, some worry that the efforts need to be more broad than deep. They say that training a few highly skilled cyberwarriors is less important than having lots of people with adequate knowledge on how to avoid getting hacked.

"There's this tendency to go for the cream of the crop," said James Lewis, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and author of a recent study on computer security vulnerabilities in U.S. firms. "The debate is 'Do you need a team of computer special forces, like Navy SEALS or cyber-ninjas? Or something more like regular forces?' "

Other security experts say that computer defense skills aren't the weak link in the cyber-espionage game. It's the little everyday mistakes that cause problems — giving your password to a colleague or leaving your laptop in a cab, airport or coffee shop, according to Fred Cate, director of the Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research at Indiana University.

"We need people trained not just how to write code for stronger protections," Cate said, "but also systems to guard against human behavioral attacks."

1
Text Only
Features
  • Sheriff seeks items for agency history project

    If you have historic pictures or artifacts related to the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office, the agency is asking the public to share them.
    “The Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office is working on a history project. If you, your family, friends or acquaintances have any old photos or artifacts related to the OCSO we would love to have them or a digital copy,” said Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel.

    April 16, 2014

  • oil infographic[1].png Easy on the coconut oil

    These days, it seems like coconut oil is soaking up credit for its positive affect on a wide range of health conditions. But, still developing science around the popular oil tells a little different story.
    “We know all saturated fats are not created equally, but there’s no evidence that coconut oil is better or healthier than other vegetable oils,” said Janice Hermann, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension nutrition specialist.

    April 16, 2014 1 Photo

  • Easter 4e.JPG Moms Club finds Easter fun at Fountains at Canterbury

    The Fountains at Canterbury hosted members of the Moms Club of Edmond-West Tuesday morning for a Easter egg hunt and party complete with a special visit from the Easter Bunny. Residents at the Fountains at Canterbury hid several dozen eggs filled with prizes and candy for the children. The Moms Club of Edmond-West is a nonprofit, local chapter of stay-at-home moms who aim to support each other during the day.

    April 16, 2014 2 Photos

  • New study counters pot legalization argument

    A new study raises a strong challenge to the idea that casual marijuana use isn’t associated with bad consequences, a researcher says.
    Researchers say the findings suggest recreational marijuana use may lead to previously unidentified brain changes and highlight the importance of research aimed at understanding the long-term effects of low to moderate marijuana use on the brain.

    April 15, 2014

  • Allergic asthma sufferers should take some precautions when exercising

    Spring has sprung, and in addition to welcoming the beauty and warmth of the season, many folks welcome — though maybe not with eager anticipation — seasonal allergies.
    And for some, allergies and asthma go hand in hand. More than 50 percent of the 20 million Americans with asthma have allergic asthma, according to the Allergy and Asthma Foundation of America. Over 2.5 million children under age 18 suffer from allergic asthma.

    April 15, 2014

  • brisket2.jpg Food Network show visits Guthrie for ’89er Days

    Guthrie’s annual ’89er Days Celebration provides a variety of activities for people to enjoy including a carnival, rodeo, parade and lots of food vendors.
    This year, visitors at the 84th annual event, which runs Tuesday through Saturday, will notice an added bonus when a film crew from the new television series “Carnival Eats” will be in town filming for its inaugural episode.

    April 15, 2014 1 Photo

  • OCSP-Family and Treasurer-04-15-2014.jpg Treasurer Miller awards ‘Tax Day Baby’ with college savings plan

    April 15 is commonly known as the day many will spend in line at the post office or finishing final preparations for tax returns. This year, one Oklahoma family spent April 15, tax day, welcoming their new son, born at 2:07 a.m. and was recognized as the first Tax Day Baby at Mercy Hospital Oklahoma City. 
    As the first Tax Day Baby, State Treasurer Ken Miller, R-Edmond, awarded, Quan Ta, with an Oklahoma 529 College Savings Plan worth $1,529. Miller, who serves as board chairman for the OCSP, reminds parents and grandparents that any contribution made to an OCSP account by April 15 qualified for a 2013 Oklahoma income tax deduction.

    April 15, 2014 1 Photo

  • Salads Spring is for salads, but make healthy choices of ingredients

    Whether you want to enjoy a salad at your favorite restaurant, breeze through a salad bar for a quick and nutritious lunch, or stock your fridge and pantry so you can make a bountiful salad at home, one thing is for sure: Now is the time to do it.
    While much of the U.S. is at least a few weeks away from harvesting local lettuce, our appetites — oh, really, our very souls — are ready to put the long cold winter behind us and put the stock pot in a dark closet.

    April 14, 2014 1 Photo

  • Progressive women plan annual ‘Night in White’

    The Women’s Department for the Progressive Oklahoma Baptist State Convention will present its annual Night In White gospel play production at 6:30 p.m. April 26.
    The gospel play production will be at the Evangelistic Baptist Church of Christ, 3129 N. Martin Luther King Ave., and will include gospel singing from the Night In White Mass Choir intermingled within the play titled “The Blessings of Motherhood.”

    April 14, 2014

  • New beagle triggering aggression in small pack

    The subject for today’s article is brought to us by Sarah from Santa Barbara, Calif. Sarah is the proud caretaker of a 2-year-old female beagle that has had a litter of puppies, one female of which Sarah decided to keep. The puppy is now about 8 months old and lately it appears as if the two dogs do not enjoy each other’s company.
    In fact, the mother dog will quite viciously attack the 8-month-old and sometimes inflict physical harm. Sarah is naturally quite upset about this problem as anyone might expect and would like some help.

    April 14, 2014