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Highland Park hacker wins award for wearing a 'white hat'

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Many days late at night, Skyler Rojas, a rising junior at UC Berkeley, finds himself exchanging messages on Skype with a good friend. The conversations tend to focus on cybersecurity -- how to protect and break into computer networks.

Trading tips and tricks in a constant quest to improve his skills has paid off for Rojas. The 19-year-old from Highland Park picked up a $2,000 award from the Information Systems Security Assn. of San Francisco at the Cornerstones of Trust conference in the Bay Area on Tuesday. It's an honor rewarding him for pursuing a career in cybersecurity. His dream job would be a "penetration tester," working from the inside to find vulnerabilities in a network.

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The supply of cybersecurity professionals has not kept up with the rising demand globally. Programs have popped up nationwide to address the issue. Rojas was introduced to cybersecurity through the CyberPatriot competition in high school.

He went on to start a cyber defense team in college. This year, that eight-person squad placed second in a regional competition. Teams had to take control of a network of a mock company for two days and protect it against attacks while responding to the day-to-day concerns of company executives.

"You don't normally have the opportunity to run your own network without having someone spoon-feed instructions to you," Rojas said.

About 30 people expressed interest in joining the team, though just eight could compete. That's a positive sign for the industry, Rojas said.

This week, winners of a San Diego program known as Cyber Cup will be treated to a week-long cybersecurity boot camp hosted by security software maker ESET. The eight students, who beat about 30 teams, met with a federal judge Tuesday morning and will hear from an FBI representative and other cybersecurity professionals throughout the week. They’ll also get the chance to improve their skills on Linux, security programs and other tools.

Stephen Cobb, a security researcher at ESET, said one of the things he hopes to make clear to the standout students is that it’s better to be on the good side than on the bad side.

“You can do fun things wearing the white hat,” he said, referring to the nickname for good hackers. “You can do some fun things wearing a black hat too, but retirement is poor.”

With computer systems becoming more critical to operations, children have less access to systems that they can break down for fun as a way to learn, Cobb said. ESET wants to provide an expanding safe forum for that energy to be channeled.

Back in the Bay Area, Rojas is spending the summer at an internship with a software development team at security solutions provider Symantec. Although his job isn't cybersecurity-focused, he still receives a couple of emails each day that touch on security issues. He said he gobbles them up.

"I'm a sucker for new information," Rojas said.

ALSO:

Yahoo discloses how much government data requests it gets

Facebook releases information on NSA requests for user data

Apple releases information on data requests from NSA, other agencies

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paresh.dave@latimes.com

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