North Hollywood High team wins national cybersecurity competition

Russians and Chinese hackers beware.

Americans, breathe a sigh of relief. Students from North Hollywood High have got your back.

Team Togo, consisting of five juniors, just won a national cybersecurity championship, which is joining the Academic Decathlon among the ranks of activities to which really smart high schoolers can devote themselves obsessively — and earn the kind of acclaim that traditionally goes to quarterbacks and point guards.

To underscore that point, North Hollywood High staged a pep rally send-off for its three — count ’em, three — teams that earned the right to be among the 12 in the country to compete last week in the CyberPatriot National Finals in Baltimore from a national field of 2,200 teams.

For the rally, the computer whizzes entered the quad through a tunnel of cheerleaders. (Three of the students are female, even if the winning team happened to be all male.)

That star treatment “was a little odd,” said Aled Cuda, 17. “I haven’t seen the school do stuff like that very often, and I’ve definitely never been on the stage like that.”

The team also was honored Friday at L.A. City Hall.

Aled doesn’t know the record of the high school football team, but he began computer programming in the summer between fourth and fifth grade.

“From the age of say 2,” said his mother, Carolyn Brighouse, “anything you gave him that was made of more than one piece, he would take it apart and put it back together.”

He “broke” his first computer by installing faulty software, then fixed it himself. That was a telling precursor.

Four rounds lead up to the national finals. Tasks include fixing security holes in computer systems and setting up Web servers. Typically, “you assume you’re walking into a company and you assume there is already a breach,” Aled said.

Tasks at the finals included sleuthing through logs of computer data to identify when a security breach occurred, to which computer and what was stolen.

Teams also had to configure a system that would allow a group of computers to communicate with one another, but with the appropriate security clearance and protections for each.

They also had to safeguard a computer system against a team of professional hackers working against them in real time.

While Academic Decathlon students spend the better part of a year cramming to learn a competition topic from all angles, many of these computer kids are doing more of what they also do for fun.

“Some of these students are kids who get home from school, then go into a room and sit at a computer — and come out for meals, sometimes,” said coach Jay Gehringer.

But for the competition, students also have to hone social skills, Gehringer said. “They have to work as a team. You have to collaborate and communicate. The parents just love this competition.”

The winning team, which also includes Kyle Gusdorf, Jaren Mendelsohn, Jonathan Liu and Nikola Pratte, got together in ninth grade.

“I didn’t really know anyone at North Hollywood when I went there,” Aled recalled. “There was a kid looking for another team member, and he knew I used Linux.”

Their practices include strategy discussions and testing out configurations for computer firewalls.

Besides having skills that will keep them employed for life, Aled’s team members include two pianists, a volunteer at a hospital and two gamers, one of them a StarCraft II grandmaster. A former marching-band tuba player, Aled operates a ham radio and earned a license to launch extra-powerful model rockets. Ultimately, he hopes to land a job with NASA building full-size rockets or space probes — or both.

North Hollywood High hosts the L.A. Unified School District’s program for highly gifted students, so it is a natural farm team for the competition, but Gehringer is the catalyst.

The L.A. district nabbed Gehringer 33 years ago after he was laid off during a round of budget cuts in a nearby school system. For 27 years, he served as the band director, then focused more on computers, thinking he’d have to give up less of his free time. He turned out to be wrong about that.

The Advanced Placement computer science teacher coached 13 teams this year. He assigns a name for each team, often based on an annual theme. When Aled’s team formed three years ago, each new group got the name of a famous husky dog. (The school’s sports teams are the Huskies.)

Togo was the lead sled dog for the lifesaving 1925 serum run to Nome, Alaska.

CyberPatriot, which sponsors the competition, is an educational effort of the Air Force Assn. The overarching goal is to inspire students toward careers in cybersecurity or other areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“They could get a job now,” Gehringer said of his students. “But it’s hard to get the necessary security clearances when you’re under 18.”

howard.blume@latimes.com

@howardblume

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