Local News

May 31, 2013

Teen computer hackers unite – for fun

Peru High School holds contest for its tech-savvy students.

PERU — Peru High School freshman Ally Almon hunched behind a computer for hours on end last weekend, trying desperately to hack into a server.

“I felt like a hermit,” she said.

Searching for the server’s flaws was like putting together an intricate puzzle, she said. Eventually, the puzzle pieces came together.

Almon’s mission ended 30 hours after it began.

She gained access to the server and called the high school to claim her prize. She had won the Peru Community Schools Hacker Competition Initiative.

Yeah. That’s right. A computer hacking competition for teens — sponsored by a school.

The district’s software programmer George Morris launched the contest three years ago to give kids a place to showcase their hacking skills without causing trouble in some underground community.

He wondered aloud what they might do without an outlet like this.

“They’re going to be sitting in the dark at home finding bad ways to use their skills,” he said.

Kids were skeptical about the contest, though. Almon said many tech-savvy students didn’t trust it enough to sign up. They thought it was a scam.

She said many were convinced the school was using it as a way to catch students trying to break into the school’s network.

While that’s not true, the school does have ulterior motives, Morris said.

“It tells us how much our students might know, how much danger they pose to our network,” he said.

But it’s also an opportunity to educate students. He told them they can actually make a career out of hacking into computers. Companies might hire them as security consultants.

Consultants reverse-engineer the server to find the holes before the bad guys do, he said.

Eight students signed up for this year’s contest, but three dropped out early.

Each student received a paper outlining this year’s mission.

“You are a network and Internet security consultant firm, and you have been contracted by a client to inspect the security of their network and find any potential security risks,” the paper read. “You have been authorized to use your skill and knowledge to penetrate their security. Your objective is to try to break through their current security and document any and all potential security flaws in an outline format.”

They had 72 hours to complete the mission. Morris tracked their progress and gave them hints when they needed them.

Almon said she remembers getting stuck several times and needing help from Morris.

“He gave very vague hints,” she said. “Unless you were on the right track, they wouldn’t help you.”

Almon said she had fun tackling the challenge. Google became her best friend as she researched ways to hack into a server, she said.

She said she didn’t know anything when she started the contest. Everything clicked when she reached the finish line, though.

“After you were done, you felt stupid,” she said. “Why didn’t I think of that sooner?”

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