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From musician to hacker—and now a recruiter of cyber defenders

Giving your kids a chance to learn how to help protect their world at an event on October 1.

 

He was the long-haired kid with earrings. He played in heavy metal bands, and rocked his grades, too. But growing up wasn’t easy for Marc Blackmer, who ended up dropping out of music school and moving from Worcester, Mass., to California.

“I was a smart kid who didn’t feel like he fit in and who couldn’t find a positive outlet for that energy,” Blackmer said. “My poor mother went through a lot because of me in those days.”

How did this musician become a hacker, then a cyber defender—and now, teacher of the next generation of kids who will keep your cities, power plants and industrial equipment safe?

From musician to hacker

Blackmer didn’t play with computers as a kid. 

“I’d always thought computers were these crazy, complicated black boxes where technology beyond my comprehension happened,” he said. “My friend’s dad, Robert, used to build his own computers, but he was also a mechanic who rebuilt engines, so I assumed computer-building could only be done by master mechanics.”

But one day, Robert called him up. They were going to the electronics store to buy parts—so Blackmer could build his first computer.

“Once we put it together, I thought, ‘That’s all there is to it?’” Blackmer recalled. “It was so much simpler than I ever could have imagined, and suddenly this whole realm of possibility opened up to me.”

Blackmer’s life changed. He went on to work in information technology, then IT security, and now industrial control systems and Internet of Things security—protecting things like water plants, traffic lights and more.

He thanks Robert for opening the door to this new future.

“Just by sharing his interests with me, he started me on an unexpected, positive path that’s led to this,” Blackmer added. “Pretty wild.”

High stakes

Now, Blackmer wants to spark interest in a new generation of kids.

The stakes are high, now that computers run the world—the factories that make your cars, the trains you ride in, the natural gas plant that brings you fuel.

One expert estimates that there are only about 1,000 industrial control systems cybersecurity professional world-wide, far short of the need. Other research shows there are more than 200,000 cybersecurity openings in the U.S. right now, with a need for six million cybersecurity professionals globally in the next three years. A quarter of those global jobs—about 1.5 million openings—could go unfilled.

“We desperately need help, especially in the areas of critical infrastructure,” Blackmer said. “So I hope we can start building a pipeline of talent over the coming years.”

 

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Marc Blackmer speaks to kids at cybersecurity event. Image by Adam Metterville.

 

1NTERRUPT

That’s where 1NTERRUPT comes in. Kids between the ages of 14 and 22 learn some computer skills at the event, then go on a “treasure hunt” to find a bad guy who is hacking into things like traffic lights and a water plant at a mock municipal utility.

“Some basic technical tools, which the participants learn about in breakout sessions, are put to use, but it’s more about problem solving and logic than it is about technical difficulty,” Blackmer said. “In my view, it’s very cool!”

He organized three free 1NTERRUPT events for kids in his hometown of Worcester, one in Atlanta, and now a free 1NTERRUPT event in the Portland area this Saturday, October 1.

The Portland 1NTERRUPT event is sponsored by the non-profit EnergySec, Mt Hood Community College, and Archer Security Group—the parent company of Archer News.

Under attack

The mock utility is under attack, and the kids need to save it. That’s the start of the game in 1NTERRUPT, where kids can learn hands-on with a set of simulated traffic lights and a mini water plant.

The bad guys have already turned off the traffic lights and shut down the water pump, and to make things worse, a utility worker named “Harry Davis” messed with the security controls so he could access his work systems from a local coffee shop.

“Did Harry incidentally let the bad guys in, or did the fact that he was posting pics of his new car on the internal social media site indicate something more nefarious was afoot?” Blackmer asks.

The technical whodunnit leads the kids through a cyber mystery that they get to solve with deductive reasoning and creative thinking. And they can see the results—their traffic lights start working again, and their water starts flowing again.

“When young people can see a physical result from something they do in the cyber world, it’s very exciting,” Blackmer said. “We are working to make cybersecurity both approachable and tangible.”

 

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Kids at 1NTERRUPT event in Worcester, Mass. Image by Adam Metterville.

 

Growing a future

The Portland 1NTERRUPT event has room for 50 students. But 1NTERRUPT sponsor EnergySec wants to see the event grow to 100 kids per event, with events nationwide.

“We need to interest students in the field of cybersecurity and all that it has to offer,” said Twila Denham, managing director of operations and workforce at EnergySec. “Our staff has encountered high school students and high school counselors who are unaware of the career pathways available as cybersecurity professionals.”

“We also want this to be the starting point, the jump-off-the-cliff and dive-into-learning about security and protection of the IoT [Internet of Things],” she added.

Hackers?

Some parents express fear that Blackmer and the volunteers at 1NTERRUPT are teaching they kids to do bad things.

“Parents go, ‘Oh, my god, you’re going to teach my kids how to hack,’” Blackmer said in a talk about his project at a cybersecurity conference in Miami in February. “I say, ‘Yes.’”

“There’s hacking for good and there’s hacking for evil. We want to take back the word and make kids proud to be hackers,” he said. “It’s very important to channel that energy into something positive.”

Like saving the world.

“I’m trying to create a structure where those kids who are smart, but may not know how to channel that energy or can’t find others with the same interests, are able to indulge their curiosity in a safe environment, meet industry professionals to learn from practitioners, and, most importantly, to meet others in their own community with whom they can build friendships,” he said. “And who knows, maybe they’ll build companies.”

The 1NTERRUPT event runs from 8:30 am to 3:00 pm at Mt Hood Community College in Gresham. Students have to register ahead of time as space is limited to 50 people. Check here for registration. If the event is full, request information about future events.

 

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