"They set networks and we can hack into the network, or we can hack into other people’s computers and then mess with them," said Chloe Chrisostomo, 16.
She’s among roughly 20 high school students, top contestants in a local computer competition, taking part in a five-day program at the offices of IT security firm ESET North America. They’re learning about cyberspying and the online marketing of stolen information.
Data breaches, like the one experienced by retailer Target last year, can be devastating to consumers and citizens, with financial institutions forced to cancel and reissue compromised credit cards. The average cost to a company was $3.5 million, according to a report released last month. The Massachusetts-based research firm IDC estimated data breaches globally could cost more than $350 billion in a single year. Hundreds of billions more are spent to prevent the attacks.
Businesses and law enforcement worldwide are struggling to keep up with cyber-criminals. Experts in the burgeoning field of computer security say they need more young people to counteract the growing numbers of criminal hackers.
Armed with strategies
The camp is designed to give students a realistic experience, security researcher Cameron Camp said.
Students are seated at computers in a so-called "war room."
"It's set up very similar to what would be a typical corporate environment," replicating Wi-Fi and corporate networks that store information, Camp said. Students learn how to hack into the closed environment.
Jomarri Salomon, 18 and a recent high school graduate, said the workshops help him understand a criminal hacker’s mind.
"You have to know how a hacker attacks or how a hacker thinks to be able to defend against that kind of vulnerability," said Salomon, who plans to join the U.S. Air Force and specialize in computer security.
Encouraging the 'good guys'
Liz Fraumann, executive director of the nonprofit Securing Our eCity Foundation, said high schoolers change their attitudes during the weeklong training.
"When we look at them initially, they think they know it all," she said. "They know a lot already. And by Wednesday [they say], 'I do not know quite as much as I thought.'"
Camp said that by week’s end, the students are well versed in "white hat" thinking and have learned to help, not harm, computer users.
"We would like to convince these folks who are skilled computer people that the rewards in the end are much better for working for the good guys rather than the bad guys," he said.