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Stop computer prodigies before they hack

Jason Spence competes in a hacking competition at the DEFCON 14 Conference in Las Vegas.

Jason Spence competes in a hacking competition at the DEFCON 14 Conference in Las Vegas. // Jane Kalinowsky/AP

Reports that students suspected of hacking Sony Corp.’s Web assets were simultaneously participating in cyber defense contests suggests, to some, a need for young cyberwarriors to learn Cybercrime 101 at an early age.

Federal agencies need tens of thousands of computer whizzes educated in network protection and offensive techniques who are able to exploit flaws in an adversary’s networks, as well as detect weaknesses in the government’s own networks. But some trainees may choose to become attackers themselves, as evidenced by the two men who apparently stole data from a Sony website while studying network security at the University of Advanced Technology in Arizona.

So some cybersecurity programs have set out to immunize kids against harmful hacking before they reach the fork in the road.

The Air Force Association’s CyberPatriot contest for high schoolers does not even teach ethical hacking or penetration testing. The first subject that participants in the national cyber defense competition learn is cyber ethics and cyber citizenship, said CyberPatriot commissioner Bernie Skoch, a former Air Force information technology director.

CyberPatriot, which receives sponsorship funding from the Northrop Grumman Foundation, aims to “strongly discourage” malicious activity by “explaining the legal consequences, the career consequences of someone in their adolescence doing the wrong thing,” he said.

The program is viewed as an inoculation against moral confusion, Skoch added. “I liken what we’re doing to 4-H and to Girl Scouts of America and what we see in church groups across the nation,” he said. “We want to reach them very young so that when they confront a potential dilemma it’s not a dilemma at all.”

Skills passed on to youngsters include configuring network connections to stay shut when not in use, so hackers can’t access files. And at the annual CyberPatriot finals in Washington, professionals from partner companies, such as SAIC, take the role of penetration testers, not the kids.

“We teach at an age-appropriate level,” Skoch said.

He acknowledges that teenagers coached on how to create strong passwords can infer from that how to take advantage of weak passwords. But anyone interested in password cracking can just as easily find how-to-hack manuals online, Skoch noted.

Some institutions that offer courses in potentially aggressive skills – think flight schools – screen applicants to weed out bad actors. But conducting criminal history investigations on the tens of thousands of students who enroll in each cyber competition may be overkill.

“We don’t have a vetting process because we’re dealing with students as young as 13 years,” Skoch said. With as many as 10,000 competitors registering for CyberPatriot annually, “I don’t think it would be appropriate to do background checks.”

During the past few years, many universities and nonprofits have sponsored school and professional contests that do try to teach ethical hacking. There is always the risk the cybersecurity scholars may be up to no good. But computer experts say one of the most important jobs in defending U.S. national security is detecting America’s network vulnerabilities.

For instance, some student quests in the U.S. Cyber Challenge “focus on a potentially vulnerable sample Web server as the artifact, challenging participants to identify its flaws using vulnerability analysis skills,” the program’s website states. The initiative is aimed at encouraging high school and college students “to fill the ranks of cybersecurity professionals.”

Cyber Challenge officials said they request professional references or teacher recommendations from high school and university students wanting to attend the program’s summer boot camps. They also question contestants on their ambitions, but do not go as far as inspections.

“We do not conduct background checks and I do not believe there are any questions which can truly screen malicious intentions,” said Cyber Challenge National Director Karen Evans, who held what is now the federal chief information officer position during the George W. Bush administration.

The competition provides students with legal information so they will use their talents appropriately, officials said. “We do include in our curriculum an ethics panel discussion with the campers, which include panelists from the U.S. Secret Service and the FBI,” Evans said.

Meanwhile, the University of Maryland’s nationally recognized cybersecurity center funds a cyber conference where high schoolers, college students and professionals “battle it out in a series of hackathons -- exciting, real-world cybersecurity games that put their critical thinking skills to the ultimate test.” Conference officials did not respond to a request for comment.

Obviously, players elsewhere have applied their critical thinking skills in real-world tests with more damaging results. InformationWeek’s Mathew J. Schwartz reported that the two men arrested on suspicion of leaking data from Sony Picture Entertainment’s website played on the same school team at a cyber defense match in March 2011.

Cody Kretsinger and Raynaldo Rivera, at the time of the 2011 attacks against Sony, reportedly were either members of--or practiced with--the UAT team that attended the three-day Western Regional Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition. Both infiltrated the company’s computers under the cover of hacktivist collective LulzSec.

In July 2011, Kretsinger “was named as student of the month, saying, "a job with the [National Security Agency] or Department of Defense is my ultimate dream,” Schwartz wrote.

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