Given the rate at which attackers are messing with computer networks these days, the world could use a few more ethical (“white hat”) hackers. It looks as if some Wellesley High School students are ready to answer the call.
A team of five WHS sophomores recently competed in the U.S. Air Force’s CyberPatriot national computer security competition and acquitted themselves quite well against a lot of teams with more experience. Wellesley’s team, which spent about 10 hours a month training and competed for 6 straight hours during each round of CyberPatriot, finished in the top four in the state. The team fell just short of making the regional round, but still finished in the top third in the country.
Captain Ethan Chiu says the team enjoyed the competition and plans to train for the next CyberPatriot event along with other such programs. Chiu spearheaded the effort by asking the school to sponsor a team and securing math and computer science teacher Robert Cohen as a coach (Cohen also coaches the school’s quiz team). Chiu also found four teammates already with computer networking and security vulnerability sleuthing skills.
“The real motivation to form the CyberPatriot team was because we — Leon Xiong, Ryan Hennessee, Nick Lueth, Eddie Zhou (not shown in photo) and I — couldn’t find a club at school that could be a true outlet for our desire of learning the way hackers think,” says Chiu. “So, ever since we formed the team, we have had an awesome opportunity to truly learn cybersecurity through an interactive experience (CyberPatriot provides virtual machines that run Windows and Linux operating systems that have vulnerabilities on them, so we can find these vulnerabilities).”
Chiu stresses that the term “hacker” has “a lot of definitions” and not just negative ones. Those looking to foil attackers need to understand how these intruders think, he says.
“While CyberPatriot doesn’t explicitly explain the methods how hacks like the one on Sony are made, they teach the beginning steps of learning a hacker’s mind,” Chiu says. “By learning a hacker’s mindset, you have the skill sets to find vulnerabilities and solve them.”
The sophs leaned on each other’s strengths during the competition — a competition that Chiu says required significant perseverance. “It once took us around an hour to solve one vulnerability that prevented a Windows virtual machine to update,” he says.
Chiu would love for more of his classmates to get a chance to learn about computer security, though he says such classes aren’t offered at WHS and are rare at other high schools.
“Wellesley should have one!” Chiu says. “I believe that Wellesley has brought in speakers in the past to bring awareness about cybersecurity. While that is a good starting place, Wellesley should implement a new cybersecurity elective so that students will have the skill set to truly protect themselves from cyber attacks.”