It was a conversation with a teenager who had already been arrested for hacking that provided the final impetus for Andy Robinson to begin offering an after-school IT security training program to qualified high school students.
Thinking that if someone had intervened earlier in the young hacker's technology education, Robinson supposed that his arrest record would have been replaced with an acceptance letter to a college. The young man with whom Robinson spoke during a security conference was articulate, capable and had a high degree of technology knowledge, but the element he lacked was a positive role model in the IT field to guide him.
On the right track
This is one goal of Robinson's pilot after-school, seven-week Tiger Team program, which has given 10 students IT security training they likely never would have received at school. The other objective is that by keeping students of the program on this track, those who are truly interested in information technology will be the infosecurity professionals of the near future.
"There is a technical part of this [program], but really the biggest thing is to [establish] an ethical framework," said Robinson, founder of information security consulting firm net/main info Security Solutions (www.nmi.net). In addition, the class provides the experiences of working with a team and maintaining all the detailed documentation required in creating and maintaining a secured environment.
"Our goal is to select students who have the computer aptitude to be information security experts, and teach them the skills and provide them with the ethical framework they need to get on the right path," says Robinson. The program's sponsor, Information Security Foundation, founded by Robinson, received some 50 applications for the class. The ISF Board of IT professionals and instructors chose the participants based on their basic programming knowledge and their abilities to install and configure a Unix variant, as well as either a Windows or Macintosh OS.
"I get good grades, but school just bores me so bad," says Tiger Team student Elliot Bradbury in a recent news release. "I can't wait to go home and get on the computer." He adds that what is "cool" about the program is not only learning more about a subject in which he is already interested, but also hearing "from professionals" and trying "more challenging things."
The program consists of lab work and lectures. For the lab, students are split into two groups to create a secured network. Once established, the groups go about attacking one another to search out network holes.
Securing all the gaps
Robinson notes that he has frequently been forced to confront the question, "Aren't you training hackers?" But, to him, that 'capture the flag' competitive element wherein the teams compete against one another to see which network is stronger is a necessary part of his program and others.
"Infosec professionals have the same skill sets as hackers, only they're using them on your behalf rather than against you," he says. "One of the goals is to generate people who take the step onto that path and become professionals."
Aiding in the development of future infosecurity professionals is a necessary program objective, says Robinson, because of the current market shortage. As an example, when he recently posted some job openings for his own company, the response was discouraging, with way too few applicants having appropriate experience. "There is a great need across the country for people with these skills," says Robinson. "Our graduates can go on to fight cyberterrorism and protect banks and government institutions from malicious attack."
The foundation plans to run another seven-week program in the fall, and is seeking additional funding for it and future classes, he says, adding that he and his Board have goals of launching the program nationwide. Meantime, Robinson and Tiger Team instructors will keep tabs on graduates of the pilot, with some acting as mentors for the new classes and others participating in more advanced curriculum courses.
"The world's filling up with computers and somebody's got to protect them," says Robin McKeeman, mother of Tiger Team student Scott Anderson, in the news release. "If you can teach him to do hacking in a positive way and it could actually be a career for him, then we're all for it."
For more information about the program, visit www.isfound.org. To donate funds call Jondi Poe at (207) 773-0446.