At SRJC cyber camp, students learn to fight against hackers

The free, weeklong camp was created by the Air Force Association to fill ‘critical’ cyber job needs.|

Sitting in front of a computer inside Room 645 on the Santa Rosa Junior College Petaluma campus, 17-year-old Liev Haroche is one of the first to finish his morning assignment.

The Sebastopol teen is among 50 participating in a camp teaching the basic skills to defend against one of the biggest security problems of the year - hacking.

CyberPatriot camp is a weeklong national program first conceived by the Air Force Association in 2014 and funded largely by donations from security and defense contractors such as Northrop Grumman and Boeing, communications giants AT&T and Cisco, and such conspicuous companies as Facebook and MasterCard, along with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The idea is that students will learn to prevent hacking - acting as administrators to control access, and protect and harden systems to ward off outside threats. The end goal is to inspire students toward careers in cybersecurity or other science, technology, engineering and math disciplines, according to the Air Force Association. Underscoring that need Tuesday in Washington, D.C., three House Democrats - including Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance - introduced a bill called the “New Collar Jobs Act” that would establish tax breaks for employers who offer cybersecurity training, increase funding for a cyber scholarship program and establish a student debt relief program for those taking jobs in cybersecurity.

The camp was brought to the SRJC campus this year by computer networking, security instructor and Department of Computer Studies faculty member Michael McKeever.

“Cybersecurity has always been important, but it’s becoming more in the public awareness,” said McKeever, referring to recent revelations of Russian meddling in U.S. elections. “Ransomware, politics, espionage in general. ... We thought (the Cold War) was over, but (Russia) never really changed. It’s just the public’s figuring that out now.

“For business purposes - just intellectual property - for security of financial transactions online, just the way that we do business, the way that we communicate with each other, security is becoming a much more relevant topic, and society is recognizing it,” he said.

On the second day of the camp, students were learning the most basic security concepts: passwords and firewalls. By the end, students should be able to identify vulnerabilities in systems, and understand how to patch them, according to the Air Force Association’s website

The cyber camps are one leg of the National Youth Cyber Education Program created by the AFA to inspire K-12 students toward careers in cybersecurity or STEM disciplines. The National Youth Cyber Defense Competition tests teams of middle and high school students with managing the network of a small company and finding cybersecurity vulnerabilities and resolving them.

The third leg is an elementary school cyber education initiative.

In Haroche’s spare time, the rising Sonoma Academy junior builds video games. He’s been coding since freshman year when a friend first taught him HTML, but security is new to him.

“So I wanted to see what that was like,” he said.

On the other end of the spectrum is Ryan Blanchard. The Novato 16-year-old has been hacking systems since he was 8 years old, figuring out ways to get around parental controls on his home computer.

“I could only be logged in from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., so I would try to find ways to get around those time limits,” he said. “I didn’t realize that that was what I wanted to do at that time, but in middle school I realized I liked getting into things I’m not supposed to be in.”

The San Marin High School student is angling for a career in cybersecurity, though he’d rather work on the offensive than the defensive side, he said. But as a good guy he’d like to be a “pen tester” - someone hired by a large corporation to document system vulnerabilities and exploit them to prove the system’s insecurity.

“I think it’s important that people understand the severity of (widespread hacking) because as we become more connected, there’s just more that people can do,” Blanchard said. “The internet, 20 years ago, was less secure, but not very much was on the internet.

“Now, the internet is becoming so vast that your car is connected to the internet. Cars can be hacked. So what’s next?” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205 or

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