If you ask kids right now what they want to be when they grow up, you probably won’t hear “hacker.” But hackers are absolutely essential to protecting cyberspace from computer criminals. We need to teach kids how to hack.
Hackers are computer security experts who want to make systems more secure. Hacking requires curiosity, computer security skills, and a special mindset for figuring out what criminals will do before they actually do it. Make no mistake: there are those who exploit cyberspace to their own ends. But those are not hackers. They are criminals.
There is a critical national shortage of hackers, and it’s because we’re failing to attract students early on to the field. More than four in five organizations lack sufficient computer security skills within their organization to protect themselves, according to a recent study by Intel. That means four in five organizations that want to secure their computers simply cannot find the talent to do so.
Talent at the government level looks just as bleak. Tony Scott, the former U.S. chief information officer, said there were more than 10,000 openings in the federal government for cyber professionals. This as the government sustained dozens of cyberattacks last year.
At Carnegie Mellon University, we believe in teaching hacking by doing. We have organized hacking events, called “Capture the Flag” contests, to promote ethical hacking skills and teach the hacking mindset.
Anyone can learn to hack. If you go to picoCTF.com, you can join more than 17,000 students as they learn hacking this year. Learning hacking, like anything, is a path. Anyone can start, and the more you practice the better you get. Overall, CMU has reached more than 57,000 students through these events since 2013. Many picoCTF hackers didn’t know what computer security was before playing. Some discovered a talent they never knew they had and went on to study cybersecurity in college.
There are three things we need to do to meet the critical shortfall of computer security experts. First, we need to promote hacking at the K-12 level. Think about it: teenagers are picking passwords, agreeing to privacy policies, and sharing information online. Cybersecurity and privacy education are as essential as basic math today.
Second, we need a national push to build effective cybersecurity education programs. CMU has over 50 courses in cybersecurity, but we are just one university and we’re at the end of the education pipeline. We need to introduce kids to cybersecurity and privacy earlier in their education by developing K-12 curriculum that teachers can use in the classroom.
Third, we need to recognize that hackers are valuable. They find vulnerabilities in order to make systems more secure. They do this by developing a unique mindset — the hacker mentality — of learning to think differently, being curious, and always experimenting. And those who practice their skills become artists at figuring out creative solutions that prevent criminals from succeeding.
As the old adage goes: “Our children are our future.” Given today’s cyber threats, we need to embrace hacking as an essential skill for kids to learn in order to keep this country safe in the future.
David Brumley is director of CyLab Security and Privacy Institute and professor of computer and electrical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. He received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from the Obama administration.
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