In cyber security contest, teens practice defending America


OXON HILL, Md. — A team of skilled teenagers from Highland Park traveled across the country recently to test its ability to protect American interests from potentially dangerous attacks. Its only weapon: laptops.

Cloaked in blue oversized hoodies, a handful of students from Benjamin Franklin High School hunched over their computer screens, armed with the knowledge to thwart hackers from infiltrating computer networks and stealing sensitive information.

At CyberPatriot: The National High School Cyber Defense Competition, held here, a stone’s throw from the nation’s capital, students mostly played defense against sophisticated computer whizzes with ill intentions. Much like in the real world.

But officials said the stakes are far greater than these budding minds realize. This exercise is a matter of national security.

“Our national banks are at risk,” said Brig. Gen. Bernard Skoch, commissioner of the Air Force Assn., a D.C.-area nonprofit that organized the event. “Imagine if bad guys hacked into our power grid and shut down our water system. We need cyber defenders.”

President Obama talked about it in his State of the Union speech, renewing a call for a new law aimed at requiring some companies to meet cyber security standards. The aim is to safeguard companies — both public and private — from malicious attacks that can cripple electrical grids, government operations, financial markets and more. Stealthy, sophisticated attackers could steal intelligence or military strategies, Obama warned.

“It used to take bombs to take out dams, electrical systems and other critical infrastructure,” said James Rinaldi, the chief information officer of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where computers have been hacked numerous times. “Now all it takes is a computer.”

Meanwhile, dozens of warriors, many not old enough to enlist in the armed services, train for battle against this invisible enemy. The six students from Franklin High joined 11 other schools in the competition.

The team — Jasmine Cao, Alvir DelaCruz, Patricia Hernandez, Jenny Huang, Jasmine Talavera and William Wong — beat out more than 1,000 schools nationwide to advance to the competition as they honed their skills to spot abnormalities, secure weak entry points and sniff out hackers.

At the competition, each group had to manage a network of 11 virtual databases and operating systems, much like IT professionals would do for a small company. Teams earned points by reducing known vulnerabilities of the network, keeping such crucial systems as email and Web servers running, and defending the network from attacks.

“It doesn’t matter how secure you think you are,” there is always somebody smart enough to sneak through, said William, 17.

As the group worked together to identify, fix and report problems with the networking system, executives from Northrop Grumman and the Department of Homeland Security watched. The students competed for scholarship money, a laptop and dinner with Obama, and the companies came in search of new employees.

Northrop Grumman, a leading provider of cyber security to the government, hired a dozen students who participated in last year’s competition. This year it is looking to fill 30 positions.

The program brings the students onboard in high school and has them work in the summers and remain on on-call status so they can work during holiday breaks. Upon college graduation, some will be offered plum six-figure jobs.

“You have to have people who understand and who know this business and know the threat and can deal with these evolving problems,” said Diane G. Miller, a director of the operations cyber security group at Northrop Grumman. “This is one way to qualify, train and build that workforce.”

Behind a velvet rope, the Franklin students stared intently at their computer screens. Very little noise escaped the work space besides the incessant clicking of computer keys.

The stern look on William’s face later gave way to a smile. He lounged back in his chair and threw his hands up in victory as his team secured a database.

“It’s scary,” said Benjamin Fernandez, an English teacher and one of the team’s coaches. “It’s like trying to protect the ocean. The Internet is just that big.”

After the announcer signaled the end of the competition, the group posed for pictures before retreating to their rooms to prepare for the awards dinner.

Franklin did not place in the competition, but the team already felt like winners. While the other students packed up and headed back to school, their group stayed in Washington for three days of sightseeing.