Summer camp trains youths in cybersecurity
A group of 23 high school students wrapped up a week of camp at Liberty University by defending computer systems from hackers and then competing in Olympic-style events using robots they programmed. The events were the culmination of GenCyber, a national program funded by the National Security Agency (NSA) and National Science Foundation (NSF) that inspires the next generation of cyber professionals.
“I am impressed with their (the campers’) passion for technology,” said Dr. Allen Harper, executive director of Liberty’s Center for Cyber Excellence. “They have a bright future and our nation is counting on them.”
While Liberty is one of hundreds of institutions across the country to receive a GenCyber grant, the university’s camp is unique in that it tests students with a “red team” event, inviting professional ethical hackers to attempt to breach and shut down the systems they configured. (In the industry, a “red team” refers to professional penetration testers who attack a system to find weaknesses.)
“They are taking on the role of cybersecurity professionals defending business networks from penetration testers,” explained Richard Bansley, the lead instructor for Liberty’s GenCyber Camp and an associate professor of computer sciences with the Center for Cyber Excellence. “They are getting hands-on experience actually configuring their systems in order to defend them.”
Rising Liberty University senior Daniel Ryan, who is serving as a GenCyber mentor, added that the experience “is really hard to find” at such a young age.
“They might not get into it until college or grad school,” he said. “At Liberty, we want to give them that higher level of experience, and I think it is great that we can give them a live red team event.”
For three hours, the “blue team” (the campers), working in groups, defended their systems as the red team intensified its attacks. Karch Frankenfield, a GenCyber instructor and employee of Liberty’s Department of Information Security, coordinated the red team challenge event.
The campers’ expenses are fully covered by GenCyber, which also pays the instructors and mentors.
“It is a great investment in some great young people who are fired up and passionate about this field,” Bansley said.
He explained that the security industry has changed due to increased technological connectivity and the ever-present threat of cyberattacks. The job market for the field is growing exponentially, with an estimated 300,000 unfilled jobs this year and more expected in the future.
“(Businesses) will look for talent, experience, and character,” Bansley said. “We are providing experience, teaching them some skills, and giving them an understanding of integrity and character, which is extremely important for the cybersecurity field. Liberty University is engaged in providing those foundational character traits, and the GenCyber program is involved in increasing the general cybersecurity awareness among the youth, so it is a great partnership with the NSA, NSF, and GenCyber. It’s invaluable.”
“We hope we have been able to demonstrate to them how to hack with ethics and integrity,” Harper added. “We need more ethical hackers.”
Over the week, the campers gained hands-on experience configuring, monitoring, and then defending secure systems. They also gained experience in programming, using robots, and cryptography — searching for wireless access points, decrypting secrets, and gaining access to wireless networks.
“They are on an isolated virtual network here. They can’t damage other networks,” Bansley said. “I tell them early on here: ‘Break it early, break it often, because that is the best way to learn.’ We use a virtual infrastructure that they can break, and we can recover it in a matter of minutes.”
Ryan, who is majoring in computer science with a specialization in cybersecurity, said he wishes he had an opportunity like GenCyber when he was in high school.
“I’ve got to say, it’s really impressive all that they have picked up and learned this week,” Ryan said. “This is the point where they are most absorbent, it seems, and they can really just jump into it and start learning and start retaining information.”