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Some of the men and women who could one day be on the front line of the fight to secure this country’s critical online infrastructure are getting their start in Spartanburg County computer labs.
That just might include Spartanburg High School juniors Skylar Hawkins and Mathias Gentry and sophomore Logan Patterson. The trio are among the members of the school’s growing CyberPatriot team, a group of students learning the fundamentals of cybersecurity who then put those skills to use in local and national competitions.
Up for grabs are bragging rights, lucrative scholarships and an introduction to a career path that could one day earn them substantial salaries.
“A lot of kids wouldn’t be here, doing this after school or on weekends,” Hawkins said. “But I think we’re learning a lot, doing a lot, and I love it.”
CyberPatriot is an outgrowth of a competition first envisioned by the U.S. Air Force Association in 2009. That led to the National Youth Cyber Defense Competition, which pits teams of two to six competitors from high schools across the country to see who can best think through fast-moving cybersecurity challenges.
It goes like this:
“You’re downloading and running an image, or a virtual machine, which acts like a computer inside a computer,” Patterson said. “You’re downloading problems, or programs with vulnerabilities, that you don’t want to run on these school computers. It’s a safety precaution where you can shut down the virtual machine and you’re good. But it’s our job to figure out where the issue is and fix it.”
The youngest of the group practicing Tuesday, Patterson grew up a fan of science fiction. He’s partial to Dr. Who and any flavor of Star Trek, but those fantastic visions of an advanced future are what spurs his interest science and technology.
“I grew up watching these shows and seeing how things worked and comparing it to how technology evolves,” Patterson said. “I want to think that’s possible in our future. I want to be a part of that.”
A big deal
Why should you care? In short, the advancing complexity of computers and connected systems makes them vulnerable to attacks or disruption.
There were more than 1,500 data breaches in the United States alone in 2017, according to online statistics portal Statista, and more than 70 percent of Americans say they’re worried that breaches like those could leave them the victim of identity fraud.
And no institution, including the military, seems to be immune to the threat.
Just this week, the Government Accountability Office released a report that found numerous vulnerabilities exist even within U.S. military weapons systems. The agency conducted a review of government security audits over a five-year span that indicated the U.S. Department of Defense “faces mounting challenges in protecting its weapon systems from increasingly sophisticated cyber threats.”
The threat even hit here in Spartanburg County, where a man reported in late September that he’d been conned out of more than $350 by a tech support scam before he realized his mistake.
There’s plenty of work to go around, as well. Close to 2 million cybersecurity jobs are predicted to go unfilled by 2020, according to Frost and Sullivan’s Global Information Security Workforce Study.
For Marcia Schenk, Spartanburg Community College’s Computer Engineering Technologies chairwoman, and Spartanburg High School CyberPatriots Coach Dennis Roberts, teams really can’t lose.
“They’re learning a tremendous amount, and this could be the springboard to an incredible career one day,” Schenk said. “But they’re also here with these other students having fun, they’re competing, they’re networking, and there’s also scholarship money out there. They can’t lose.”
Roberts helped coach the first iteration of Spartanburg High’s CyberPatriots squad last year. He views it as his job to introduce his students to the field’s fundamentals and bring in local experts to guide them to higher levels of proficiency.
“They’re busy kids,” Roberts said. “But most of them are here multiple times a week, even on Saturdays. They put a lot into this.”
Hawkins is in that category.
He said he’s yet to miss a practice session, and he doesn’t intend to. He’s a returning member of last year’s squad and might be the team member with the deepest interest in technology. He’s laid back and comfortable showing off the skills he’s developed over the years as a hobbyist.
Gentry believes the study of network systems or cybersecurity could be in his collegiate future. He’s earnest and makes you believe him when he says he’s going to become the first person in his immediate family to graduate from college.
“You’ve really got to have a deep interest this stuff,” Gentry said. “But I think we really all do have a love for this. There’s always something new to figure out, some new thing, some new challenge.”