High school students learn to fight cyber-crime


January 16th, 2015

Omaha South students, including Khoa Tran (right) and Miguel Mayorga (center) compete in CyberPatriot. (photo by Mike Tobias, NET News)

Omaha South students, including Khoa Tran (right) and Miguel Mayorga (center) compete in CyberPatriot. (photo by Mike Tobias, NET News)

The attack on Sony Picture’s computer systems late last year is just the latest high-profile example of cybercrime. Costly, damaging intrusions into business, government and personal computers, sometimes even reaching the credit cards you carry. Developing the next generation of warriors in the cybercrime battle is one of the goals of a unique high school competition in Nebraska and across the country.


Omaha, NE – Bellevue West student Tyler Grafft is in the middle of a high school competition, and he’s just scored for his team…by finding two unauthorized users that weren’t supposed to be on a computer.


In this competition, there are no cheering fans, screaming parents, pep bands or PA announcers. Instead, a half dozen students from Bellevue West’s Air Force Junior ROTC Varsity CyberPatriot team spent six hours in a computer lab, parked in front of keyboards, towers and monitors. They moved around to help each other, or to help themselves to a table full of pop, chips and pizza that fueled a long day of work.

The scene was replicated this same December weekend at Omaha South High Magnet School and a handful of other Nebraska high schools, all in the Omaha metro area. This was the state level portion of the national CyberPatriot competition.

Freshman Thania Williams and junior Juan Barrera-Mendoza are on South’s team.

“We’re trying to prevent hackers from hacking us,” explained Thania Williams, a freshman at Omaha South.

“The idea is to secure kind of like a fake network,” South junior Juan Barrera-Mendoza added. “It’s put on a virtual machine so we can do almost whatever we want without wrecking the real computer, but we’re scored on the good things we do and we get points taken away on the negative things we do.”

The students have to understand different operating systems, and find a wide range of things that could expose that system to a cyberattack.

“Malware. There are viruses,” said Ron Woerner, director of CyberSecurity Studies at Bellevue University and one of the professional mentors who works with the CyberPatriot students. “Of course, these are kind of fake viruses, making sure that they can’t really cause any damage. It’s on a virtual operating system, so it’s not actually touching any computer. So they’ll go and they’ll have to get rid of that virus, either by installing an anti-virus or through other means. They may also have fix policies like a password policy. Often these computers don’t have any password policy or they’ll have users without passwords.”

Like any other team, there’s practice. The teams meet once a week with mentors like Woerner in the months leading up to the competition. And like any other team, there’s comradery, inside jokes and a little silliness. The Bellevue West team keeps track of each vulnerability they find by drawing turtles on a dry erase board at the front of the classroom.

“This group here likes turtles. There’s not really a reason for it,” said Tyler Copeland, a senior at Bellevue West. “You could say that we’re pretty loose. We like to have fun with it. I mean we take it seriously, but it’s about having fun, you know, it’s supposed to be enjoyable.”

The reason for this is serious business. Cybersecurity experts estimate the Sony Pictures attack could cost the company $100 million. Another group of experts say the global cost of cybercrime is more than $400 billion, and rising.

“We have a great need for more cybersecurity professionals,” Woerner said. “We need more people to do this, both within the military, federal space, as well as in the private sector. The idea is to get these kids as interested as early as possible so they know what type of careers are available in information technology and in cybersecurity to really help them see where they can go with their career.”

Omaha South computer teacher Lana Yager hopes the experience will lead to cybersecurity internships for some of her students. So they know that this is a valid career with huge money tied to it, huge opportunities,” Yager said. “Have to work hard, stay on top of it and they’re applying everything. This is as close to real world as they can get.”

A number of students from Bellevue West and Omaha South now see cybersecurity careers in their future.

“It’s really enjoyable,” Copeland said. “It’s something that I plan to do for the rest of my life. Cybersecurity, cyberwarfare, something like that.”

“The demand for people in cybersecurity is getting higher and like the people that are actually doing cybersecurity is not up there yet,” Barrera-Mendoza of Omaha South added. “So the cyberspecialist career is looking really promising.”

Omaha South, competing in CyberPatriot for the first time, did well enough to advance in a level for less-experienced teams and earn one extra round of regionals competition this weekend. Bellevue West, competing in the highest level of the competition, fell short of winning a third straight state championship. The winning teams at the highest level came from Bellevue East and Creighton Prep. But all the competitors walk off the playing field, or away from their computer labs, with something more important than a medal or trophy: a set of skills quickly growing in demand.

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