The contest, open to all U.S. high school students, is run by the U.S. Cyber Challenge with a goal of attracting bright young minds to fill a looming gap in the American cybersecurity workforce. It provides online tutorials and video guides for the subjects to be covered, and then students prove their mastery through three separate timed quizzes.
Students take the quizzes and are scored individually, but learning the material can be a team effort, as was the case at Panther Creek.
As leader of the school’s Cybersecurity Club, Bryan helped other students participating in the competition understand the material.
“It was really rewarding working with some of them and showing them these concepts,” he said. “And, you know, the moment that they finally understand, ‘Oh, this is how an IP address works,’ ‘This is how computers actually talk to each other,’ – I thought that was pretty cool.”
Figuring out computers has been a passion for Bryan, the son of high-level computer programmers, for as long as he can remember.
“One of my first memories, I think I was like a baby or something, and I was sitting on a desk at one of these NASA facilities where my parents would go to work,” he said. “I was sitting there, and there was this huge, clunky computer terminal right beside me, and I think I thought to myself: ‘Wow, that’s pretty cool.’”
At age 12, he installed the open-source operating system Linux on his computer – all by himself. It started with a search for themes for his Windows computer, which led to some YouTube videos that introduced him to Linux and much more.
“Installing Linux really opened up my mind to possibility of different things that could be done with computers,” he said.
Now, at 16, he’s proud to be a hacker, but he knows the word has a bad rap.
“The word ‘hacking’ has been kind of abused; it’s sort of lost its original meaning,” he explained. “The term hacking really originated from basically finding things in your environment, finding systems and learning how things work, so that you can make them better.”
The key, he said, lies in knowing the enemy: “You can’t learn how to protect a system against attackers unless you know how to attack the system.”
Competitions like Cyber Foundations, he said, are a step in the right direction toward nurturing smart kids who are interested in computers and making sure they use their skills for the greater good.
“I think it’s important that we teach a lot of children, people who are interested in this field, that it’s much, much more rewarding and much better to engaged in the good side of technology,” he said. “To learn about all of the malicious things that people who write viruses are putting out there … to be able to defend against them.”
But really, he said, we all bear some responsibility for keeping our systems and our information safe from attackers.
“Technology is really evolving at an incredible rate,” he said, ” … we should make a greater effort to learn about these technologies – all of us, not just the people who are in charge of cybersecurity.”
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