Cy­ber de­fense taught by ex­perts

Houston Chronicle - - BUSINESS - By Madi­son Is­zler STAFF WRITER

Nilo Mackey started pro­gram­ming in el­e­men­tary school, cu­ri­ous about what hap­pened in­side a com­puter.

“I’ve al­ways hated just to con­sume things,” said Nilo, now 13. “I’m fas­ci­nated by the way things work.”

He taught him­self dif­fer­ent skills, grad­u­at­ing from ba­sic pro­grams to more ad­vanced work. This year, he’s en­rolled in an IT Fun­da­men­tals class at GhostWire Academy.

The San An­to­nio-based non­profit of­fers free cy­ber­se­cu­rity classes on the week­ends for kids ages 13 to 17. Par­tic­i­pants can earn in­dus­try cer­ti­fi­ca­tions for some cour­ses if they pass the req­ui­site tests.

The IT class, which gen­er­ally runs 10 weeks and cov­ers net­work­ing, soft­ware, se­cu­rity and other ba­sics, helped Nilo fill in the gaps in his knowl­edge, he said. He’s con­tem­plat­ing a ca­reer in cy­ber­se­cu­rity or pos­si­bly start­ing his own con­sult­ing firm.

“If I have ques­tions, I can ask,” Nilo added.

GhostWire Academy was founded by sev­eral ac­tive mil­i­tary mem­bers with cy­ber­se­cu­rity ex­pe­ri­ence. They saw a need for more cy­ber­se­cu­rity ed­u­ca­tion and an op­por­tu­nity to train to­mor­row’s cy­ber de­fend­ers, co­founder Charles Hack­ett said. He is a crew com­man­der at the 33rd Net­work War­fare Squadron at Joint Base San An­to­nio-Lack­land, where he over­sees peo­ple work­ing to pre­vent at­tacks.

“How does the U.S. be­come bet­ter

Cy­ber war­riors from Air Force teach teens to de­fend against at­tacks — for free

than our ad­ver­saries?” Hack­ett said. “We re­al­ized that it’s through teach­ing kids.”

They started think­ing about launch­ing GhostWire about a year and a half ago, and the name was de­rived from “Ghost in the Wires,” a book by no­to­ri­ous hacker-turned-con­sul­tant Kevin Mit­nick.

Classes were ini­tially of­fered at lo­cal pub­lic li­braries and are now held Sun­days at Con­flu­ence Park, aided by lap­tops do­nated by Toy­ota.

GhostWire of­fi­cially be­came a non­profit in De­cem­ber. The first it­er­a­tion of the IT Fun­da­men­tals class started about six months later. The group also has of­fered one-off classes, such as a re­cent ro­bot­ics course.

Classes are taught by a small group of vol­un­teers, in­clud­ing Hack­ett and co-founder and Pres­i­dent Shaun Her­ron, and they’re al­ways look­ing for more teach­ers. More than 200 peo­ple are on the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s wait list.

“The big­gest dif­fi­culty is di­gest­ing the ma­te­rial that’s in­tended for adults and rephras­ing it so that the kids un­der­stand it and still are able to pass the exam that’s writ­ten for adults,” said Hack­ett, who’s also vice pres­i­dent.

Stu­dents are taught how a cy­ber­at­tack works, knowl­edge they need to un­der­stand how to de­fend against one, Her­ron said. They also learn about the ethics of hack­ing.

The films or tu­to­ri­als stu­dents may have seen of­ten don’t dis­cuss the how and why of the process and the po­ten­tial ram­i­fi­ca­tions, Hack­ett said. Mis­in­for­ma­tion is wide­spread.

“The in­tent is to teach them how to de­fend, not blow stuff up,” said Her­ron, chief of strat­egy and plans at the 624th Op­er­a­tions Cen­ter.

Do­na­tions are used to cover the cost of the ex­ams and the lunch GhostWire pro­vides to stu­dents dur­ing the classes. They re­cently launched a Go­FundMe cam­paign.

On Sun­day, Nilo and 11 other GhostWire stu­dents took a Com­pTIA IT exam for cer­ti­fi­ca­tion at Dynamic Ad­vance­ment, a pro­fes­sional devel­op­ment firm at Port San An­to­nio.

Ev­ery stu­dent passed. Dynamic Ad­vance­ment cov­ered the cost of 10 of the ex­ams.

Com­pany founder and Pres­i­dent Kekai Na­mauu, who spent 20 years in the Air Force work­ing in cy­ber­war­fare, said GhostWire is teach­ing teenagers im­por­tant skills they can use to earn in­dus­try cer­ti­fi­ca­tions.

“The kids are walk­ing away with some­thing tan­gi­ble,” he said.

That was ap­par­ent with the Com­pTIA exam — all 12 stu­dents passed.

The non­profit is of­fer­ing an eth­i­cal hack­ing course start­ing Sun­day, and more it­er­a­tions of IT Fun­da­men­tals are planned for next year.

They also will be teach­ing a Net­work+ and Se­cu­rity+ cour­ses, which build on the fun­da­men­tals course. Both are sig­nif­i­cantly more dif­fi­cult, and stu­dents can earn cer­ti­fi­ca­tions for both, Hack­ett said.

GhostWire has re­ceived in­quiries from peo­ple in other states about start­ing a sim­i­lar ini­tia­tive, but the fledg­ling non­profit is fo­cused on lo­cal ef­forts for now.

“We want to fig­ure this out first be­fore we try to grow,” Hack­ett said.

Ron­ald Cortes / Con­trib­u­tor

Nilo Mackey, 13, right, who has been in­ter­ested in pro­gram­ming since el­e­men­tary school, is among the teens in the IT Fun­da­men­tals class at GhostWire Academy. Par­tic­i­pants in the pro­gram can earn in­dus­try cer­ti­fi­ca­tions.

Pho­tos by Ron­ald Cortes / Con­trib­u­tor

My­lene Mackey and other stu­dents lis­ten to the in­struc­tions be­fore tak­ing the exam for Com­pTIA cer­ti­fi­ca­tion on Sun­day. All 12 stu­dents passed.

Shaun Her­ron, pres­i­dent of Ghostwire, says stu­dents are taught how a cy­ber­at­tack works, along with the ethics of hack­ing.

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