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Kid cyber conferences allow them to “Go hack yourself”

Sep 21, 20154 mins
CareersHackingInternet Security

Cybersecurity conferences aren’t just for grown-ups. Kids are joining along and learning “Go Hack Yourself” is a good thing.

“My primary goal of hacking was the intellectual curiosity, the seduction of adventure.”  – Kevin Mitnick

A white-hat hacker is someone who enjoys thinking of innovative new ways to make, break and use anything to create a better world.” – Nico Sell, r00tz Asylum Honor Code

Kids are naturally curious. They are born to hack their environment in order to learn how and why the world works as it does. See the story of the 9th-Grader after taking a homemade clock to school. They don’t even realize they could be getting into trouble.  This leads to potentially dangerous situations, especially with the distributed, online world of cyberspace. We need to direct kids to be white-hat hackers. Cyber competitions provide safe havens where kids have an outlet for their curiosity. (See the post Cybersecurity competitions – Make a difference.) Another way is kid-centered hacking conferences.

We’re turning kids into cons. This doesn’t mean convicts, but conference attenders. A growing trend in cybersecurity conferences is to include kids with a separate track/area just for them. Kids benefit from conference experiences like adults. It’s their opportunity to learn something new, practice their skills, and network with others.

rootz Asylum, Hak4Kidz, and HacKid conferences are kid-centered events to spark their curiosity as ethical hackers in a safe and rewarding environment. All of these were started by cybersecurity professionals and parents looking to create a fun and safe place for kids to learn and practice various hacking skills.  

These conferences aren’t solely about cybersecurity, but include many forms of general life hacking. They focus on areas kids care about at a level they understand. Topics include robotics, online gaming, martial arts, medieval weapons, soldering, 3D printing, lock picking, and drones. This is in addition to traditional cybersecurity topics of programming, online safety, cyberbullies, cryptography, computer hardware engineering, and hacking contests. They use non-traditional methods to engage kids with as much hands-on learning as possible.

The intent is to allow the kids to “get dirty” playing with the technologies without a fear of breaking things or getting into trouble. They have “junkyards” full of old PCs, cell phones, network routers, circuit boards, etc. that allow kids to understand bare-bones technology. Contests (with prizes!) challenge kids to Capture the Flag (CTF) in a virtual environment, solve crypto puzzles (using math), and develop games. 

Each of these conferences maintains a strict code of ethics to help kids (and adults) know their boundaries when hacking. r00tz Asylum exemplifies this with their Honor Code.

Originated by Nico Sell in 2010 as DefCon Kids, R00tz Asylum gets kids learning cybersecurity from the best in the industry. There’s no better place than the Black Hat and DefCon conferences in Las Vegas every summer. In the 2014 opening address, Nico describes the origin. “’r00tz’ came from the idea that getting ‘root’ of a computer means taking full control of it.” At cons like r00tz Asylum, kids take control of their learning through multiple hands-on hacking sessions delivered by cybersecurity luminaries. The summary says it all, “r00tz is about creating a better world. You have the power and responsibility to do so. Now go do it! We are here to help you.

Started by David “Heal” Schwartzberg, Hak4Kidz is a series of kid conferences with the goal of developing a community of cyber kids with common interests, objectives, and a sense of belonging. Many kids who are into computers are still seen as socially-awkward introverts. Hak4Kidz gives those kids their own space where they can learn together. “Hak4Kidz is a conference for youth focused on internet safety and best practices with an opportunity to safely explore computer science and cybersecurity.” 

HacKid was started by Christopher Hoff with similar goals as r00tz and Hak4Kidz.  “Kids are our future, why not give them that spark that will set them on a journey that only ‘hacking’ can inspire?”  HacKid took a break in 2015, but check the website for future events.  

These Kids Cons have reached thousands of kids (and equal number of parents) over the past five years. They are having a positive impact by engaging kids in the world of white-hat hacking.

Call to Action – Part 3: Volunteer at a kid’s security conference or camp. If one doesn’t exist in your area, consider starting one. Let’s work on replicating these events to cover as much territory as possible. Helping one kid makes it all worthwhile.

Ron Woerner is the Director of Cybersecurity Studies at Bellevue University. He has over 25 years of corporate and military experience in IT and Security and has worked for HDR, TD Ameritrade, ConAgra Foods, Mutual of Omaha, CSG Systems and the State of Nebraska.

Ron earned a B.S. from Michigan State University and a M.S. from Syracuse University. He was awarded the Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) in 2001, the Certified Information Security Manager (CISM) in 2014, the Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) and Toastmasters Advanced Communicator and Leader designations. He is the Air Force Association CyberPatriot 2013-2014 Mentor of the Year for his work with high school cybersecurity competitions. He loves to talk to others who are passionate about security and privacy.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of Ron Woerner and do not necessarily represent those of IDG Communications, Inc., its parent, subsidiary or affiliated companies.