DDoS attacks, zero-day vulnerabilities, phishing, ransomware, click fraud: Never a day goes by without cyber attacks compromising government, corporate and private data. A quick read through the CyberWire briefings shows this is not limited to organizations in the U.S. but is happening around the world, resulting in stolen personal data, infected hard drives, crippled infrastructure and compromised networks, just to name a few problems.

In May 2016, LinkedIn’s corporate blog announced that, “we became aware of an additional set of data that had just been released that claims to be email and hashed password combinations of more than 100 million LinkedIn members” from a theft in 2012. It advised all LinkedIn members to change their passwords.

Cyber attacks, the scourge of the internet, aren’t going away anytime soon. For some, it’s reason to recoil from the internet and delete social-media accounts; but for others, it’s an opportunity to educate and build a workforce knowledgeable about cybersecurity.

The Norsecorp. site shows real-time cyber attacks on a global scale.
The Norsecorp.com site shows real-time cyber attacks on a global scale. Norsecorp.

In 2014, the national GenCyber program was piloted here in Hawaii. Local partners consisted of the National Security Agency, the National Science Foundation, the Hawaii Department of Education and the University of Hawaii, which included the Pacific Center for Advanced Technology Training and Information Technology Services. The program was created to address the growing threat of cyber attacks and to close the skills gap that existed for cybersecurity professionals.  

Ensuring that enough young people are inspired to direct their talents in this area is critical to the future of our country’s national and economic security, as we become even more reliant on cyber-based technology in every aspect of our daily lives,” said Capt. Cliff Bean, commander of the NSA’s Central Security Service Hawaii. 

In the summer of 2015, high school students and teachers were invited to participate in a week-long boot camp to learn about cybersecurity fundamentals. Student lessons culminated with a Hunger Games-themed scavenger hunt that incorporated coded clues. Student teams were tasked with gathering clues around campus that would lead them to a particular goal. This tested student skills in encryption, steganography (the practice of concealing one file, message, image or video within another one) and foundational principles of cybersecurity.

After the successful participation of more than 60 high school students in the 2015 bootcamp, GenCyber expanded in 2016 not only to encompass high school but also elementary and middle school students. Also, what was started on Oahu now is rolling out to the neighbor islands, including Kauai, Maui and the Big Island.

The GenCyber 2016 field of student participants at the June 2016 bootcamp.
The GenCyber 2016 field of student participants get cracking at the June 2016 boot camp. Honolulu Community College

In this rollout, workshops are being offered that include introductory and advanced classes for both high school teachers and students, as well as a an Integrated STEM + C (science, technology, engineering and math plus computing) class for elementary school teachers, to bring computer science into the K-8 classroom. 

Funding for the GenCyber summer programs across the country is provided through a partnership between the National Science Foundation and the National Security Agency. The program was developed to directly address the cybersecurity workforce shortage across the public and private sectors. It was also an effort to counteract the bad publicity NSA got after Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor, leaked documents revealing the extensive surveillance program at the agency.

“Cyber threats are real, constant and always changing,” said Tina Ladabouche, NSA’s GenCyber program manager, in an NSA press release. “We are committed to helping the nation enhance cybersecurity education – providing opportunities for both teachers and students to learn more about an issue that affects all of us and will continue to do so in the future.”

Student team reviewing the GenCyber 2016 cryptology exercise.
A student team works on a cryptology exercise during the GenCyber 2016 boot camp. Honolulu Community College

In addition to the GenCyber program, two cybersecurity competitions help round out the options to learn and experience this field first hand. CyberPatriot, which started in 2009, is a national education program created by the Air Force Association, a nonprofit organization. CyberPatriot features a national youth cyber-defense competition in which students defend networks against online adversaries. Hawaii has participated since CyberPatriot III in 2010.

For the collegiate ranks, there is the Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition. This national cyber security exercise was started by the Center for Infrastructure Assurance and Security at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where the first competition for the Southwest region took place in April 2005. Hawaii and Alaska participate in the at-large regionals; and in 2014, a team from Honolulu Community College placed third.

Students reviewing scavenger hunt clues at Honolulu Community College, GenCyber 2016.
Students review scavenger hunt clues at Honolulu Community College during GenCyber 2016. Honolulu Community College

Finally, the fourth pillar to this cybersecurity foundation is the National Centers of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense, a designation given to research institutions by the National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security. The University of Hawaii Manoa received this CAE designation in 2015. The program was developed to to encourage universities and students to pursue higher degrees and conduct doctoral research in cybersecurity.

Honolulu Community College received recognition in 2013 as a National Center of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance 2-Year Education. 

“We believe that the focus on teachers is the best way to scale this to the largest number of students possible.  True success won’t be measured for years, this isn’t a short-term gain but an investment in the future for Hawaii’s students,” said Bean.

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