CybersecurityWanted: high school hackers, crackers, and other digital deviants

Published 22 May 2009

The Pentagon is looking for a few good high-school hackers; in an effort to counter sustained Chinese and Russian hacking of U.S. government and industry networks, the Pentagon is launching a new military-funded program aimed at leveraging an untapped resource: the U.S. population of geeky high school and college students

The Pentagon is looking for a few good high-school hackers. What with the economic downturn and the financial crisis, high-school students looking for a summer job may have a difficult time finding one. Except, there is, one group of high school students: hackers, crackers, and other digital deviants. Uncle Sam wants them.

Forbes’s Andy Greenberg writes that as part of a U.S. government information security review released today, White House interim cybersecurity chief Melissa Hathaway likely will mention a new military-funded program aimed at leveraging an untapped resource: the U.S. population of geeky high school and college students. The Cyber Challenge, which will be officially announced later this month, will create three new national competitions for high school and college students intended to foster a young generation of cybersecurity researchers. The contests will test skills applicable to both government and private industry: attacking and defending digital targets, stealing data, and tracing how others have stolen it.

Greenberg writes that the competitions, as planned, go far beyond mere academics. The Air Force will run a so-called Cyber Patriot competition focused on network defense, fending off a “Red Team” of hackers attempting to steal data from the participants’ systems. The Department of Defense’s Cyber Crime Center will expand its Digital Forensics Challenge, a program it has run since 2006, to include high school and college participants, tasking them with problems like tracing digital intrusions and reconstructing incomplete data sources.

The security-focused SANS Institute, an independent organization, plans to organize what may be the most controversial of the three contests: the Network Attack Competition, which challenges students to find and exploit vulnerabilities in software, compromise enemy systems and steal data.

More is at stake in these games than mere geek glory. Talented entrants would be recruited for cyber training camps planned for summer 2010, nonprofit camps run by the military and funded in part by private companies, or internships at agencies including the National Security Agency, the Department of Energy or Carnegie Mellon’s Computer Emergency Response Team.

Alan Paller, director of the SANS Institute, says companies including EMC, AT&T and Verizon have all expressed interest in sponsoring elements of the program (EMC and AT&T spokespeople didn’t respond to requests for comment, and Verizon declined to comment in advance of the program’s announcement).

The ultimate goal, according to the initiative’s mission statement, is a new sort of grassroots cybersecurity education designed to keep America ahead of a growing threat of cyber attacks from both criminal and