A less rowdy spring break hardly seems possible: Twenty-eight high school students in New York state recently spent their vacation week at cyber-security camp, looking for vulnerabilities in a wireless network by day and watching patriotic movies by night.

Believed to be the first residential high school cyber-security program in the country, the camp was a collaboration among the State University of New York at Mohawk Valley Community College (MVCC), the Griffiss Institute for Information Assurance, and the Cyber Operations Branch of the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory.

Students were housed at the Griffiss Institute in Rome, N.Y. The institutions funded the program with a $1 million federal grant that New York Congressman Sherwood Boehlert, a Republican, helped to secure. Students took part in the camp free of charge.

The thinking behind the week-long program, held for the first time in April, is that 80 percent of computer hackers are believed to be under 18–so high school is the perfect time to recruit them to the security side.

Students taking part in the program were nominated by their high school principal, guidance counselor, or district superintendent. They all were considered exceptionally accomplished in the fields of math, science, and technology.

Ron Cantor, dean at MVCC, described the participants as the region’s “best and brightest” in terms of technological acumen. “The basic skills, the familiarity with wireless and wired networks, don’t seem to be all that scarce,” he said. “What we were interested in were students who were interested in learning and sharing in the experience.”

The curriculum was modeled on a 10-week course given to college ROTC students. Students took part in discussions on morality and ethics, attended lectures, and received hands-on training in many different aspects of cyber security, including legal issues and security policy, encryption, cryptology, network security, wireless security, and digital forensics.

Students also received a textbook, Secrets and Lies: Digital Security in a Networked World, by Bruce Schneier. One student who took part in the program said the book was a good resource for further home review and practice.

Among the exercises: Develop an “acceptable use policy” for a high school or college and attend a lecture on the history of information assurance.

Edward Ajaeb, a 16 year-old sophomore who describes himself as having been “tech-savvy since about the fifth grade,” said he enjoyed learning about “the wide variety of techniques that cyber-crime experts use to crack down on internet crime.”

Ajaeb spoke highly of the hands-on element of the training. “During the Wi-Fi activity, they actually had set up wireless adaptors in each of the computers. You got to use some tools that allowed you to go into those and change the settings.”

He said he also liked the lab on steganography, which is the art–and science–of digitally hiding information by embedding messages within other, seemingly harmless messages.

Joshua Safran, a 16-year-old sophomore who takes Advanced Placement computer science, said he’s been thinking about becoming a programmer or an engineer. Now, he’s thinking about security, too.

Ajaeb said he also believes the coursework has influenced what his later career choices might be.

“Now that I’m in high school, I’m becoming more interested in the law and criminal justice,” he said. “If I can combine my tech-savvy skills and my interest in law and criminal justice, that would give [me the background] to become a cyber-crime specialist. You could really have an intense job, especially if you’re involved in the FBI, CIA, or even a local police department. I love the thrill and the challenge it would bring.”

The students and their parents started the week by watching a documentary on the September 11 terrorist attacks. MVCC’s Cantor said the film discussed what could be perceived as the “ultimate compromise of our system.”

“Not necessarily a direct cyber security violation, but the film made clear that networks all over the world are sensitive,” said Cantor.

Early discussions roped students in by placing cyber security in a historical context; speakers discussed Cold War espionage, the coding of messages, and various attempts to hide information and compromise data years before there was a heavy reliance on the computer.

Evening programs included a Frontline show called “Cyber War” and the movies Patton and Apollo 13.

The favorite evening event, however, was chess. One student called home to ask his parents to bring an extra board.

A two-week camp for high school students is planned for this summer. The specific dates have not yet been established.

Cantor said the first week of the summer program would be largely the same as the week-long spring break course. But he said students at the summer camp would be given the opportunity to investigate specific cyber-security issues in a more in-depth manner.

He added that the grant money for the regional program eventually will run out and that the institutions involved will have to charge for at least a portion of the cost.

Educators who are interested in starting similar cyber security programs should contact Cantor’s MVCC office at (315) 334-7701.

Links:

University of New York at Mohawk Valley Community College
http://www.mvcc.edu

Griffiss Institute for Information Assurance
http://www.griffissinstitute.com

U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory
http://www.afrl.af.mil