Hackers For Hire - FOX13 News, WHBQ FOX 13

Hackers For Hire


It might just be the American Idol of the cyber world. A competition searching for the best hackers out there.

Private email, corporate records, even military secrets; all vulnerable to cyber attacks. It’s very real and happening more often than you know.

“All government agencies are being attacked and most major companies," said Alan Paller, with the SANS Institute.

December 2009 – Google hacked, secrets exposed. It’s a security crisis hitting home for even the President in 2008, when hackers gained access to e-mails and campaign files from policy position papers to travel plans. And in April 2007, a series of cyber attacks on government agencies including the Pentagon wiped out more data than stored in the Library of Congress.

There are 1.8 billion attacks a month according to the Senate’s Sergeant at Arms Office. The government is looking for defense.

That’s where Michael Coppola comes in.

“I'm nervous, but I think it would be a pretty good thing to take on,” said Coppola.

He just might be the future of cyber security in the United States.

“I got into computers at a pretty young age … I'd like to take down the people that actually create problems,” said Coppola.

And he’s only seventeen years old.

“I bought a book in the fourth grade and I taught myself how to code websites,” Coppola told FOX 5.

He’s self taught and a force to be reckoned with. Last year, the teen entered and won the first ever U.S. Cyber Challenge by doing something no one else had. He hacked the points system.

“Basically, I found a vulnerability in the scoring server itself. So, I was able to get access points as I felt needed," said Coppola.

Clever and brilliant, exactly the type of person the Cyber Challenge hopes to find.

The U.S. Cyber Challenge involves a series of competitions in various areas of cyber security. The goal is to find young whiz kids who can become the top guns in cyber defense.

“The key weapons in the next war are going to be people … These kids that we're looking for already have a lot of skill. The only way that they can nurture their skill right now is by exploring computers that don't belong to them,” said Alan Paller.

Paller is the director of research for the SANS Institute, the main training organization of cyber security in the United States. He says the nation’s dependence on the internet leaves it more vulnerable than any other country.

“It isn't a military threat. It's a commercial threat where they want to have economic superiority over the United States,” said Paller.

Paller believes the only way to combat that is for more schools to start cyber education programs dedicated to finding talent to join the understaffed field.

“The skills of the people that can control your computers and gain control of the other guy's computers are more important for future wars,” said Paller.

The United States is catching up. Other countries like China have held competitions for some time.

“Their winners have already been found penetrating into the Pentagon,” said Paller.

Many recent attacks including those against Google and Yahoo are also thought to have come from China.

Michael Coppola wants to use his cyber powers for good.

“I guess they call themselves hackers, but people who can compromise computers and destroy what they've compromised, they're not hackers. They're just punks,” said Coppola.

After winning the competition, Coppola started developing a series of courses for the SANS Institute.

“There's hundreds and thousands of other kids like me and they love computers and they love exploiting,” said Coppola.

His new mission is identifying weaknesses in the nation’s cyber security. Growing a new generation of defenders that might be sitting in a high school classroom as we speak.

The U.S. Cyber Challenge hopes to find 10,000 cyber experts by the end of next year. Maryland just started a statewide competition. Those winners will attend cyber camps to nurture their talents.

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