BENNINGTON -- After placing near the top in the nation in an online cybersecurity challenge, two local college students were invited to a week-long camp intended to prepare this country’s next generation of cybersecurity professionals.
Both Madison Pace, 18, of Bennington, and Chad Weber, 25, of North Bennington, received tuition-free invitations to compete in the U.S. Cybersecurity Challenge (USCC) Virginia Regional Cybersecurity Boot Camp at Virginia Tech at the end of June, after finishing near the top of a USCC Cyber Quest competition.
USCC is an organization that developed from a White House initiative to "find 10,000 of the country’s best and brightest to fill the ranks of cybersecurity professionals where their skills can be of the greatest value to the nation," according to the USCC Website.
Part of what USCC does is hold online competitions called Cyber Quests, which ask participants to analyze computer systems that are vulnerable to attacks and to determine how a hacker may get past the system’s security. A recent Cyber Quest both Weber and Pace competed in drew about 1,000 participants. Among them, Weber placed 10th in the country, while Pace placed 14th.
"It was kind of a forensics challenge. They give you a bunch of network traffic and configuration files of different pieces of software within a network, and you have to identify attacks that might have gone on or flaws in configurations that might let attackers in," Weber said. "You’re looking at a big picture and you’re not really going to know where to start. So you want to get an idea of, OK, based on this traffic I know that there’s these different machines in the network and this machine might be running a webserver, this might have some user files, and you want to look for weak points in there to see if those were hit."
Participants were given three chances to take the Cyber Quest challenge, and during each attempt they had 24 hours to do an analysis and complete a corresponding quiz.
Because of their success in that challenge, both Weber and Pace were awarded tuition-free entrance into the cybersecurity camp, which included specific, hand-on training sessions taught by some of the top professionals in the field.
"Basically, it’s four days worth of training, each day on a different subject," Weber said. "This year we did a day on packet crafting, which is basically making your own network traffic ... the second day was Android exploitation, how you would take advantage of Android phones and Android applications."
"It’s a lot more specific (than college classes)," Pace said. "It’s a lot more intense and focused."
Procedure was also stressed at the camp.
"One of the biggest hurdles if you’re hacking or doing any kind of vulnerability analysis is you might need to be looking at the entire network, but as soon as you find one little flaw you really want to just try to exploit that until you get it, but that might not be the easiest way in," Weber said. "You really (should) hold off and follow the steps and find every different avenue you can explore, and then once you have that mapped out, start poking a little bit into this and a little bit into that."
The camp concluded with a game of capture the flag. "This is where we are the hackers rather than trying to figure out how the hackers operated. Basically, we’re given a set of targets, and you have to capture what they call flags, which might be a user’s password or someone’s Social Security number," Weber said.
In addition to expanding their understanding of cybersecurity, the camp also opened a new door for Pace to attend college free of cost though the U.S. Department of Defense. Pace attended Vermont Technical College last year, but he will transfer in the fall to a college of the department’s choice and then he intends to get a job in cybersecurity for the department.
"You hear in the news a lot about the U.S. being attacked from remote targets; well, it would be specifically to stop, curtail and possibly attack back," Pace said.
Both Weber and Pace have had an interest in how computer systems work since they were young. Pace’s interest came from video games, specifically the computer game "Command and Conquer: Red Alert."
"I was playing that when I was like eight years old and was like, ‘hey, I want to cheat.’ So I started going into the source of it, and I started finding out that you can change values for certain things and make things cheaper," Pace said.
Unlike the way most children cheat in video games by entering codes the developer allows gamers to use to gain an advantage, Pace actually re-wrote game coding. "This was actually changing the files on the game," he said.
Like Weber, Pace’s passion evolved through computer programming courses at Southwest Vermont Career Development Center in high school.
Weber then attended Champlain College for two years before transferring to Vermont Tech last school year.
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