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Hacking for a good cause

July 25, 2014 - Kim Delker

The name “hacker” usually has a negative connotation, as in someone who uses high-tech skills to steal a person’s or company’s private electronic information.

But a “white hat hacker” is just the opposite. It’s someone who is just as crafty, but uses that knowledge for a good cause, namely to fight cybercriminals by outsmarting them and staying one step ahead of them to prevent a crime from occurring. Other white hat hackers help protect journalists and dissidents from oppressive governments overseas.

That’s the subject of the UNM Cybersecurity Boot Camp, where about 30 high school students are getting the opportunity to learn about white hat hacking, forensics and information assurance principles through lectures, hands-on labs and gaming exercises. The camp began July 21 and continues through Aug. 1.

Boot camp organizer Jed Crandall, an associate professor of computer science, said that understanding how hacking works is a skill that is needed by nearly every company as cybercriminals get smarter and smarter.

“This is an in-demand skill, and a lot of local companies need people with this knowledge,” he said. “Here in the Computer Science department, we can’t fill the demand just with the students we graduate. The need is too great.”

He said he’s hoping that trainings like this will get more students interested in choosing computer science and cybersecurity as a career, leading them to get involved in computer security groups such as Capture the Flag and CyberPatriot in high school, enroll in computer science programs in college, then begin meeting the ever-growing need for white hat hackers in the workplace.

Crandall said a lot the participants of the boot camp come in with a good deal of knowledge about computers, coding, and hacking, which means that participants are ready to hit the ground running.

“Cybersecurity is a field you can get into later in life, but if you start early, you’ll be a lot further along when you graduate,” he said. “The earlier the better.”

The camp, which was also offered in 2013, filled up its spots in just days. High schoolers attending don’t need any prior experience with computers, and they receive $200 and a certificate of completion at the end of the camp.

Topics covered include penetration testing, digital forensics, Internet privacy and computer programming.

The first week involves training and hands-on labs about cybersecurity principles, as well as digital forensics tutorials at the Anderson School of Management. Week two will focus on honing their hacking skills through a combination of lectures on cybersecurity topics and playing Werewolves on a UNIX-based server.

Werewolves is described as a game in which participants are divided into two groups: werewolves and townspeople, with the goal being to eliminate members of the opposing group. Werewolves can eat townspeople at night and are outnumbered but know each other’s identities. The townspeople don’t know the identities of the werewolves, so they must rely on inference. The game is ideal for teaching about hacking because privacy and confidentiality are important for the werewolves. Students use what is called “covert channel attacks” — an attack that exploits communication channels, much like hacking — to identify werewolves. 

The bootcamp is sponsored by the UNM Department of Computer Science, the Anderson School of Management, the UNM Human-Centric Security Center, and the UNM Center for Information Assurance Research and Education.