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Who will fight off the next generation of cyber attackers?

Hacking contest tries to spark kids’ interest in defending the world’s critical infrastructure.

 

The Treasure Hunt is about to begin.

The crown jewels of this hunt are your water and traffic lights, and the computer system that runs them. 

The hunters are kids, out to find the cyber invader who attacked the system, messed with your water supply and sent your traffic signals into chaos.

This is the final stage of a hacking event called 1NTERRUPT, designed to bring young people in close to the world of cybersecurity, to help fill the millions of unfilled jobs open now and in the future.

“We need you,” event creator Marc Blackmer tells the group of about 60 people aged 14 to 22, gathered in at Mt. Hood Community College in Portland, Oregon.  

They may be the ones who will keep the bad guys out of your computer, your bank account, and the infrastructure that keeps your banks, cities and factories moving. 

“The skills you are being exposed to here are incredibly in demand,” adds Gene Kim, founder of Portland-based cybersecurity company Tripwire. “They’re the hottest skills in the industry.”

 

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1NTERRUPT founder Marc Blackmer speaks to participants at hacking event in Portland, Oregon.

 

Inspiring kids

How do you inspire the next generation to devote their careers to defending not just cyber space, but industrial infrastructure?

This 1NTERRUPT event started with contacts at local schools and the promise of a glimpse into the world of cybersecurity. The fifty open spots filled quickly, and 1NTERRUPT added room for more.

“As soon as I saw in the e-mail that there were only eight spots available, first-come, first-serve, I just sent it to my mom,” says Isabelle, age 16, who is also interested in music and track and field. “I’m like, ‘Sign me up!’”

“One of my teachers told me about it,” says 16-year-old Benton, who likes to play video games in his spare time. “I know there’s a high demand. And it never hurts to learn more computer stuff.”

“I thought it was kind of cool,” says 16-year-old Trace, also a swimmer and water polo player. “You’ve seen the cybersecurity hacker TV shows. Kind of a good field to look into.”

 

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Sixteen-year-old Isabelle searches for clues during the 1NTERRUPT Treasure Hunt.

 

“Daunting”

Cost is not an issue for the kids—1NTERRUPT is free. The nonprofit organization finds sponsors—for this event, EnergySec, Archer Security Group—Archer News’ parent company, and Mt. Hood Community College.

But the volunteers behind 1NTERRUPT have to show the participants a lot of new things—computer skills they may not know—in a short time, so they can join in the Treasure Hunt and save the mock utilities.

“Daunting,” says Isabelle. “At first, I was all like, ‘I’m struggling really hard to understand everything.’”

“It was a lot of information,” says Trace. “I tried to take notes.”

 

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Participants lined the walls at the 1NTERRUPT event in Portland, Oregon.

 

On your mark

In the hours before the hunt, EnergySec cybersecurity specialist Brandon Workentin explains how to find your IP [Internet protocol] address and scan a network.

His colleague, Andrew Zambrano, shows the kids what looks like a blank white screen.

“Very boring. Nothing to see here,” he says.

But there is hidden text, the same color as the background. 

“Control + A selects the text,” Zambrano explains.

Hit control + A, and you will see the hidden clue that could lead you to the attacker.

“This is very important to the Treasure Hunt,” Zambrano informs the group.

Get set

The hunt is set to start in minutes.

Blackmer describes what the participants will do when it begins.

“You land on a desert island—not for vacation, like you’re shipwrecked,” he says. “You’re going to orient yourself. Where am I? That’s your IP address. Bust out that ‘compass.'”

“The next thing you’re going to do on this desert island—‘Where is the food? Where is the shelter?’ So you’re going to scan that island,” he says. “Basically what you’re doing is surveying the network, looking for those bits and pieces you want.”

The “bits and pieces” will lead them to the goal—finding the attacker, saving the traffic lights and water. 

“This was not built to be uber geeky,” he says. “This is more about deductive reasoning.”

 

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Mock traffic light rapidly cycles through red, green & yellow to simulate system hack.

 

Go!

“Have at it!” Blackmer tells them. And the game begins.

Informal teams gather at tables or on the floor, peering at their laptops.

In the corner, water colored blue, green and red bubbles in plastic tubes, representing the water system under siege.

Near Isabelle’s table, a mock traffic signal clicks through red, green and yellow, too quickly for any car to make it through—a visual and audible reminder that the teams need to move rapidly to save the city.

“Wow,” she says, focusing on her computer screen.

It is trial and error, trying out new skills, and searching for connections.

“Oops,” she adds, then sighs, as she tries to navigate the network and track down the attacker’s trail.

The clues come together. A utility worker at the mock utility named Harry Davis has set up the network so he can monitor the system from a local coffee shop. Suddenly, he is posting pictures of his new car on social media. Did he let the bad guys in?

 

 

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Participants formed teams to work together on the 1NTERRUPT Treasure Hunt.

 

On the hunt

With 60 kids scanning thousands of ports, the network crashes, then comes back up again.

People stare intensely at their screens, eyes darting back and forth. They rub their necks or their eyes, hoping to figure out their next move.

At one table, word goes around that a hunter may have nailed one of the goals.

“Somebody got the lights!” a participant says.

“They got the lights?” asks another.

“I don’t think so,” says a third.

 

 

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“We need your help,” 1NTERRUPT founder Marc Blackmer told the group at the 1NTERRUPT event.

 

Game over

Finally, after three hours, the race is over. The culprit? The utility worker, Harry Davis.

Though Isabelle didn’t win the hunt, she gets a nod for being the first to scan a QR code on a screen in the search for clues.

“This was really fun,” she says. “Like going from network to network and picking up all the different clues and passwords and stuff to get to where you want to end up, which was to fix the lights and the pumps.”

“You’re like thinking outside the box and like learning how to get around things and make connections,” she adds.

 

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1NTERRUPT founder Marc Blackmer hands out awards for participants after the Treasure Hunt.

 

New generation of hackers?

Blackmer says parents often ask him if he is going to teach their kids to hack. He says yes, that hacking is a good thing, as long as it is used for good.

“It’s a mindset of asking, ‘What if?’” he says. “MythBusters—they are the ultimate hackers. That’s something we want to encourage. We’re looking for good ideas.” 

Good hackers could save your critical infrastructure from the bad hackers who want to take it down.

Blackmer’s message resonates with some of the participants.

“I’ve always liked to tinker with things and see—well, hacking, essentially—and see what these things can do,” says 17-year-old Jared. “The challenge is fun to me.”

Isabelle was planning to be an astrophysicist, she says, but now, after 1NTERRUPT, she may change her career path.

“I could go into cybersecurity,” she says. “I would say I’m really glad I decided to come.”

1NTERRUPT held its Portland event on October 1. It has also held three events for kids in Worcester, Massachusetts, and one in Atlanta, Georgia.

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