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Hacking instead of hiking

Kait BolongaroAugust 31, 2015

The US National Security Agency (NSA) has run a summer program with the goal of recruiting the next generation of cyber specialists. The agency is at the center of a controversy over the extent of its surveillance.

Symbolbild Sommercamp GenCyber NSA
Image: picture alliance/AP Images/M. Mulligan

Far away are the tents, canoes and hiking boots – the quintessential accessories for a summer camp designed to pry smartphones from the hands of youngsters.

Indeed, GenCyber, a cyberspace summer program, encourages students aged 11-18 to stay glued to their screens. Participants learn more about security in the digital world – a highly sought-after skill for future employees of the National Security Agency (NSA) as national security interests and the cyber world converge.

The NSA is co-sponsoring the project: the same agency that startled people around the world after Edward Snowden revealed the extent of its surveillance program. The leaked files showed the NSA eavesdropping on international heads of states and collecting American phone records.

Symbolbild NSA Angela Merkel
Some of the most powerful heads of state, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, were wiretapped by the NSAImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Pilick

Heading off to camp

In 2015, the NSA partnered with the National Science Foundation (NSF) to fund 43 overnight and day camps at universities in 18 US states.

“NSF supports evidence-based STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education projects and GenCyber allows us to investigate types of activities, pedagogy, evaluation metrics and other factors of innovative projects to increase diversity and interest in cyber security careers," Victor Piotrowski, lead program director for NSF's CyberCorps, told DW in a statement.

GenCyber began as a small pilot project of six camps in 2014 after the NSF provided a seed grant to kick-start the program. In an interview with the "New York Times," GenCyber's director Steven LaFountain said that the plan was to expand to 200 camps across the 50 US states by 2020.

The cyber security industry is expected to grow in the coming years, creating positions that likely cannot be filled by the current workforce. With 20 percent of the American population under 15, LaFountain hopes GenCyber participants will step into the gap.

He also said there were long waiting lists to attend the camps. The selection criteria vary between institutions, with some demanding previous experience in math and science and others focusing on an applicant's interest.

Sommercamp GenCyber NSA
Students participating in a class at a GenCyber summer camp at Dakota State UniversityImage: picture alliance/AP Photo/E. Clements/Dakota State University

Instructors at colleges hosting the camp are responsible for designing their curriculum, but are required to teach students ethics.

It is also important for the NSA that participants attend free of charge, allowing people of all backgrounds to participate. This practice is in stark contrast with the average programming camp. At iD Tech Camps, a private tech camp start-up that hosts tens of thousands of campers each summer, tuition ranges from $749-$1,079 (484-952 euros) per week.

The use of recruitment programs such as GenCyber is widespread in the US intelligence community. The NSA has a decades-long track record of organizing collegiate programs and currently has 13 academic institutions.

The next generation of cyber specialists

According to GenCyber's website, one of the program's main purposes is to ensure that students behave safely online, meaning they use their cyber skills as a white-hat, or positive, hacker.

For Clifford Neuman, director of the Center for Computer Systems Security at the University of Southern California, hacking knowledge is important for both defending and breaking systems.

Sommercamp GenCyber NSA
Young hackers can decide to use their skills in two ways: for white-hat or black-hat hackingImage: picture alliance/landov

“While one can learn [hacking] ‘on the streets,' those that do are often inclined to be led astray and to apply some of these techniques against real companies,” he told DW. “It is better for them to learn those skills in an environment that encourages applications of those skills within the law.

GenCyber also aims to increase diversity and cultivate interest in cyber security, a strategy that focuses recruitment on women. To achieve this objective, most camps either have male and female cohorts of the same size or take only women.

For Piotrowski, female attendance in 2015 has already been a victory.

“We are especially pleased with gender distribution in the camps: more than 50% of 1,400 participants were female, while only 26% of computing and 12% of cybersecurity workforce in 2014 were women," he said.

Convincing US youth

LaFountain told the “New York Times” that the program's aim wasn't to portray the NSA in a positive light or to convince the next generation about the benefits of the agency's practices.

Brett Max Kaufman, a legal fellow at the American Civil Liberties Union, doesn't see an issue with NSA educational programs. However, he believes if the NSA is using GenCyber to recruit children, they are losing the battle for the hearts and minds of America's youth.

“Young people have grown up knowing nothing other than the promise of a free and open Internet,” he told DW. “So perhaps better than anyone, they understand the grave damage to human freedom inflicted by the expansive NSA surveillance programs we have learned about over the past several years.”

“Kids don't want to grow up in a world in which the government logs each of our calls, scans each of our international emails, and collects vast amounts of information about us through bulk surveillance,” he added.

Kaufman also said that any NSA-sponsored programs should also include outside presenters to speak to youth about the legal and ethical questions surrounding some of the NSA's practices.