Tahlequah Daily Press

Get the scoop!

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
Get the scoop!
  • Smartphone kill switches are coming

    Smartphones need kill switches. It's a relatively easy solution to the pricey (and irritating) problem of smartphone theft. But who would have thought that the big carriers would team up with Apple, Google, Microsoft, Nokia, Samsung and lots of other manufacturers to voluntarily begin adding the technology by July 2015? The cooperative spirit! It makes so much sense!

    April 18, 2014

  • Why do wolves howl?

    Of all the myths that dog the wolf, none is more widely accepted than the idea that wolves howl at the moon. Images of wolves with their heads upturned, singing at the night sky, are as unquestioned as a goldfish's three-second memory or a dog's color-blindness (both also myths).

    April 18, 2014

  • Biggest student loan profits come from grad students

    This week, the Congressional Budget Office projected that the federal government would earn roughly $127 billion from student lending during the next 10 years.

    April 18, 2014

  • Consumer spending on health care jumps as Affordable Care Act takes hold

    Nancy Beigel has known since September that she would need hernia surgery. She couldn't afford it on her $11,000 yearly income until she became eligible for Medicaid in January through President Barack Obama's signature health care law.

    April 18, 2014

  • Lindley, Tom.jpg Golf turns into snooze-fest without celebrities like Tiger and Phil

    The Masters lumbered on last week without two of pro golf's biggest names, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, and fans changed the channel. The PGA needs someone with star power if it's going to lure people back to the game.

    April 18, 2014 1 Photo

  • Raw oysters spike U.S. rise in bacterial infections, CDC reports

    Raw oysters, so good with hot sauce, increasingly can carry something even more unsettling to the stomach: A bacteria linked to vomiting, diarrhea and pain.

    April 18, 2014

  • taylor.armerding.jpg Warren's populist pitch on student loans is off key

    Sen. Elizabeth Warren's populist rhetoric pumps up students about their loan burdens, but she conveniently neglects to mention the real problem - the exorbitant cost of college - much less how she's benefitted from those high prices.

    April 18, 2014 1 Photo

  • The case for separate beds

    The other night I slept on a twin bed in the guest room of the house I share with my husband and our two kids.
    It was the best night's sleep I've had in years.

    April 18, 2014

  • Doctors to rate cost effectiveness of expensive cancer drugs

    The world's largest organization of cancer doctors plans to rate the cost effectiveness of expensive oncology drugs, and will urge physicians to use the ratings to discuss the costs with their patients.

    April 16, 2014

  • To sleep well, you may need to adjust what you eat and when

    Sleep.  Oh, to sleep.  A good night's sleep is often a struggle for more than half of American adults.  And for occasional insomnia, there are good reasons to avoid using medications, whether over-the-counter or prescription.

    April 16, 2014

  • Low blood-sugar levels make for grousing spouses

    Husbands and wives reported being most unhappy with their spouses when their blood-sugar levels were lowest, usually at night, according to research released this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Missing a meal, dieting or just being hungry may be the reason, researchers said.

    April 16, 2014

  • treadmill-very-fast.jpg Tax deduction for a gym membership?

    April marks another tax season when millions of Americans will deduct expenses related to home ownership, children and education from their annual tax bill. These deductions exist because of their perceived value to society; they encourage behaviors that keep the wheels of the economy turning. So why shouldn't the tax code be revised to reward preventive health?

    April 15, 2014 1 Photo

  • Victimized by the 'marriage penalty'

    In a few short months, I'll pass the milestone that every little girl dreams of: the day she swears - before family and God, in sickness and in health, all in the name of love - that she's willing to pay a much higher tax rate.

    April 15, 2014

  • Allergies are the real midlife crisis

    One of the biggest mysteries is why the disease comes and goes, and then comes and goes again. People tend to experience intense allergies between the ages of 5 and 16, then get a couple of decades off before the symptoms return in the 30s, only to diminish around retirement age.

    April 15, 2014

  • E-Cigarettes target youth with festivals, lawmakers say

    The findings, in a survey released Monday by members of Congress, should prod U.S. regulators to curb the industry, the lawmakers said. While e-cigarettes currently are unregulated, the Food and Drug Administration is working on a plan that would extend its tobacco oversight to the products.

    April 14, 2014

Poll

What to you think of a state Legislature proposal to forbid cities from raising the minimum wage? Choose the closest to your opinion.

The federal government should set the minimum wage across the board.
States should be allowed to raise their minimum wages, but not cities.
Both states and cities should be allowed to raise their minimum wages.
Cities should be allowed to raise their mimum wages, but not states.
There should be no minimum wage at all.
Undecided.
     View Results
Tahlequah Daily Press Twitter
Follow us on twitter
AP Video
Captain of Sunken SKorean Ferry Arrested Raw: Fire Destroys 3 N.J. Beachfront Homes Raw: Pope Presides Over Good Friday Mass Raw: Space X Launches to Space Station Superheroes Descend on Capitol Mall Man Charged in Kansas City Highway Shootings Obama Awards Navy Football Trophy Anti-semitic Leaflets Posted in Eastern Ukraine Raw: Magnitude-7.2 Earthquake Shakes Mexico City Ceremony at MIT Remembers One of Boston's Finest Raw: Students Hurt in Colo. School Bus Crash Raw: Church Tries for Record With Chalk Jesus Raw: Faithful Celebrate Good Friday Worldwide Deadly Avalanche Sweeps Slopes of Mount Everest Police Arrest Suspect in Highway Shootings Drought Concerns May Hurt Lake Tourism Vermont Goat Meat Gives Refugees Taste of Home Calif. Investigators Re-construct Fatal Bus Cras Mayor Rob Ford Launches Re-election Campaign Appellate Court Hears Okla. Gay Marriage Case
Stocks