Edward Ajaeb got his first taste of steganography in sixth grade, when he set up a Web site for his teacher's husband to showcase his master's thesis on the subject. By then the Utica, N.Y., youth had designed Web sites for a couple of years, a side business he'd developed in the fourth grade.
This spring, the 16-year-old sophomore got even more involved in sending hidden, encrypted messages by using a tool he downloaded off the Internet. He also tried to break into a wireless network and learned what computer cops look for during a forensics investigation. All under the watchful eye of the U.S. Air Force, which helped host what some say is the nation's first residential cybersecurity camp for high school students.
"I wanted to learn different kinds of career options, and it turns out I did learn there are a whole lot of choices," Ajaeb said of the first Cyber Security Program for High School Students held this spring at the State University of New York at Mohawk Valley Community College.
That's just what organizers wanted to hear following the weeklong, federally funded camp that exposed 28 talented teens from central New York to a field with unique staffing challenges.
"To one degree, this whole program is about antihacking," explained Ronald Cantor, dean
of the community college, which is located next to a technology business park and Griffis Air Force Base's cybersecurity research laboratory. "During part of the course, we talk about legal and societal structures and the ethics of computer hacking."
Students said the dean did indeed stress using what they learned to benefit "the good side" and not the bad. "In reality, after talking to some of the students, they were more interested in the 'bad' things that they could do," admitted one student, "but [they] understood that they'd be arrested if they ever got caught, so I believe that they decided against it."
Another student backed up that statement, saying some students told of being able to manipulate servers but quickly learned the consequences if they carried out that activity. "I don't see any of the kids ending up on the news for being a hacker or anything like that," he said.
The program, which also plans summer sessions, arose from an open challenge made by a local congressman, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert [R-New Hartford]. "We are not producing fast enough the intellectual capital needed to maintain our preeminent position in worldwide markets," said the chairman of the House science committee. "This is the Information Age and just about everything depends on our ability to address the challenges of cybersecurity."
The camp was designed by Dr. Kamal Jabbour, a civilian who created the curriculum for the Air Force's Advanced Course in Engineering, a cybersecurity boot camp for cadets. Students, who were recommended by their guidance counselors and teachers based on academics and interest, lived in an ACE student dormitory and spent four hours daily in lectures and labs on a variety of subjects: legal and ethical issues; policy making; computer forensics; wireless security; steganography; and next-generation network security.
Campers admit the legal lectures were a snooze and the wireless attacks and steganography exercises were a highlight. "The whole week was phenomenal," said Justin Monroe, a junior from Rome, N.Y. "It really gave me an idea of what the computer science and engineering fields are really like."
This was, of course, camp and so students also devoted time to team-building, swimming, volleyball and field trips. Chess was huge, with some students calling home to request extra chess sets for ad hoc tournaments. And some needed to be coaxed outdoors to play Frisbee.
But there also were signs this was no ordinary camp. The military presence was inescapable. Students watched patriotic movies, such as "Patton" and "Apollo 13" and ate breakfast between 6 and 6:30 a.m. daily.
"For a lot of us, waking up that early in the morning was a physical challenge," Ajaeb said.
But everyone involved in the program say it was a big success and should spawn similar camps nationwide. That, Boehlert said, is good for the country. And just in time, given the pervasiveness of data crimes and identity theft. "We're maturing in this whole industry. You had reluctance from people to acknowledge there was a problem. They didn't want to admit it publicly, for obvious reasons," he said.
"At this time, one of the most promising career fields for any young person to consider is in cybersecurity, the politician added. "It's exciting to see the enthusiasm these students had… it's almost a little frightening to see how bright these kids are."