In Fairfax County, the classroom is a (cyber) battlefield

Northrop Grumman - Students take part in the CyberPatriot competition at Chantilly High School on November 17, 2012.

Armed with laptops and an Internet connection, the teenagers logged in to the server and began their reconnaissance mission. They probed for weaknesses in the network’s firewall and other hidden vulnerabilities in their system.

They deleted files and added password protections to defend from further incursions. And in between, the 75 Fairfax County teens munched Doritos and cookies as they raced against time and thousands of other students across the country in this weekend’s premier high school cyberwarfare competition.

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“There’s an enormous appetite for what we’re offering here,” said Bernard Skoch, a retired Air Forge brigadier general and commissioner of the CyberPatriot event.

Since its inception in 2009, the CyberPatriot competition has grown in popularity among teenagers who see computer security as a promising future career.

More than 1,200 students took part in the nationwide competition, including the 75 members of the 10 teams that competed at Chantilly High School on Saturday.

The CyberPatriot challenge was designed to be completed in six hours, but one cadre of particularly talented Chantilly students from Team Void finished in 38 minutes.

For Team Void, the competition seemed rudimentary and was a “joke.” Their finishing time was believed to be a record for Fairfax County students.

The members of Team Void met through the Chantilly Academy, a science, technology, engineering and math magnet program at Chantilly High School. They include seniors Chris Kim, Weyland Chiang and Brian Nguyen, all 17, and juniors Anirudh Bagde and Timothy Rothschild, both 16.

“It’s nice having team camaraderie while working on a challenge,” said Chiang. “Overall ,it’s a game but, it’s a subject that interests me. I take it seriously. I definitely see a future in it.”

Diane Miller, the director of operations of the cybersecurity group for Northrop Grumman, said the competition focuses mainly on defending networks, not breaking in to them. She said it was important for the young computer wizards to learn the ethics of cybersecurity.

She said that 28 CyberPatriot veterans have been hired as interns at Northrop Grumman.

“The word is out that CyberPatriots are very skilled,” she said.

After this weekend, the CyberPatriot teams will compete in a second round before the semifinals in January. The national finals will be held in mid-March at National Harbor, where thousands of dollars in scholarship money will be presented to the winning teams.

Skoch, who retired in 2003 as the director of communications operations for the Air Force, said that the future of the country depends on the bright young minds who compete in the CyberPatriot event.

Vital military, civilian and corporate computer networks have emerged in recent years as the virtual battlefield in modern warfare.

For those students who do want to pursue a career in cybersecurity, he said the federal government and defense contractors are hiring.

“People don’t realize cybersecurity is a national imperative,” Skoch said. “We can’t find enough people to fill all of the cybersecurity jobs.”

Once they do begin work, they’ll be busy, Skoch said. He estimated that about 30,000 attacks on the Defense Department network occur daily.

 
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