Computer-savvy teens are putting down their game controllers -- at least temporarily -- for code writing and virus-sweeping. Call it "Red Dawn: Part Deux: Teen Cyber-Commandos."
At events like the CyberLympics, CyberPatriot contest or just-announced "Toaster Wars," sponsored by the National Security Agency, high school geek squads are competing to see who does the best job at preventing unauthorized computer intrusions.
This growing interest in cyberdefense comes at a time when the Pentagon officials are warning against damaging computer attacks from China and other nations, while stoking concerns that the United States education system hasn't trained enough cyber-warriors to protect either military or civilian computer systems.
Utilities, power companies, tech firms, banks, Congress, universities and media organizations, all have faced suspected Chinese attacks in recent months.
"The threat has evolved so quickly," said Diane Miller, Northrop Grumman’s director of information security and cyber initiatives. "It really has created a sense of urgency."
The Pentagon and its defense contractors are behind these contests, which are designed to recruit kids to future careers in cyberdefense and IT security. The CyberPatriot contest, which is sponsored by the Air Force Association, has grown from eight high school squads in 2009 to more than 1,200 this year.
The finals were held last week at National Harbor just outside Washington, D.C., in a hotel ballroom next door to a meeting of conservative Republican activists. The event occured as several top-level Obama administration officials warned Congress and the Washington press of dire consequences from Chinese cyberattacks, and pledged to expand the size of the Pentagon's cyber command division.
The Marshall team advanced through three preliminary rounds to make it to the final round of 12. During a break in the contest, Houck compared the contest to gaming, and talked about what his future holds.
"Cyberwarfare is the war of tomorrow and we don’t have enough soldiers on the cyber battlefield," he said. "I just want to be one of those."
Houck said computer games and cyberdefense exercises are both competitions "but in fighting another human being on the cyber-plane, you always have to keep on your toes. You can fight a computer and it becomes predictable."
A recent Pentagon report called for tripling the number of workers at the U.S. Cyber Command, but there's one big hitch. To become a cyber professional working in government, potential employees have to have exceptionally clean records. That means no arrests or expulsions for hacking into school computers or shutting down websites.
While the students are taught advanced computer skills, they also receive training in computer ethics, according to Scott Kennedy, assistant vice president and principal systems engineering manager at SAIC, a defense contractor and cybersecurity provider based in Northern Virginia. In fact, some students have been kicked out for getting into other team’s computers, or issuing denial of service attacks.
"It’s more obnoxious than anything else," Kennedy said. "In prior competitions, we have caught them trying to cheat and trying to game the game. We give them a warning and then they are expelled."
Houck and other students interviewed at the contest say they know the fine line between white hat and black hat. Houck said hacking and defending are two sides of the same coin and that the only way to make a proper defense is to understand your weaknesses.
"We are trained in offensive security, or ethical hacking, but we do know how to monitor a network like a school and watch all the traffic going through," Houck said. "And if it’s encrypted, we do know how to break that." Houck and the Marshall team placed second at this year’s event, and will sharing a $100,000 pot of scholarship money with other winning teams.