A platoon of digital troops lurks in the nation’s high schools.
WASHINGTON – In the eighth grade, Arlan Jaska figured out how to write a simple script that could switch his keyboard’s Caps Lock key on and off 6,000 times a minute. When friends weren’t looking, he slipped his program onto their computers. It was all fun and games until the program spread to his middle school.
“They called my parents and told my dad I was hacking their computers,” Jaska, now 17, recalled.
He was grounded and got detention. And he is just the type of youngster the Department of Homeland Security is looking to hire.
The secretary of that agency, Janet Napolitano, knows she has a problem that will only get worse. Foreign hackers have been attacking her agency’s computer systems. They have also been busy trying to siphon the nation’s wealth and steal valuable trade secrets. And they have begun probing the nation’s critical infrastructure — the power grid, and water and transportation systems.
So she needs her own hackers — 600, the agency estimates. But potential recruits with the right skills have too often been heading for business, and those who do choose government often go to the National Security Agency, where they work on offensive digital attacks on foreign nations. At Homeland Security, the emphasis is on keeping hackers out, or playing defense.
“We have to show them how cool and exciting this is,” said Ed Skoudis, one of the nation’s top computer security trainers. “And we have to show them that applying these skills to the public sector is important.”
Make it a game
One answer? Start young, and make it a game, even a competition.
This month, Jaska and his classmate Collin Berman took top spots at the Virginia Governor’s Cup Cyber Challenge, a veritable smackdown of hacking for high school students that was the brainchild of Alan Paller, a security expert, and others in the field.
With military exercises like NetWars, the competition had more the feel of a video game. Paller helped create the competition, the first in a series, to help Homeland Security, and likens the agency’s need for hackers to the shortage of fighter pilots during World War II.
“I like to break things,” Berman, 18, said. “I always want to know, ‘How can I change this so it does something else?’ ”
It’s a far different pursuit — and a higher-minded one, enlightened hackers will say — than simply defacing websites.
“You want people who ask: How do things work? But the very best ones turn it around,” said Paller, director of research at the SANS Institute, a computer security training organization.
It’s no coincidence that the idea of using competitions came, in part, from China, where the People’s Liberation Army runs challenges every spring to identify its next generation of digital warriors.
Tan Dailin, a graduate student, won several of the events in 2005. Soon afterward, he put his skills to work and was caught breaking into the Pentagon’s network and sending reams of documents back to servers in China.
“We have no program like that in the United States — nothing,” Paller said. “No one is even teaching this in schools. If we don’t solve this problem, we’re in trouble.”
Starting a club