Like skilled cat burglars, teams of college-age hackers slithered past defenses to probe the soft underbelly of a sophisticated computer system.
Their mission: to steal secrets and leave an electronic calling card.
As they tapped away on laptops and spoke in low voices, knots of educators, business leaders, parents and government officials hovered nearby, smiling and nodding with approval. In the eyes of the organizers of the Maryland Cyber Challenge and Conference, today's hacker could be tomorrow's cybersecurity hero.
"We need a whole generation of people to help us build out the digital future," said Michael Kaiser, executive director of the National Cyber Security Alliance. "This has been a part of their lives since Day One."
The two-day conference at the Baltimore Convention Center, which ended Saturday afternoon, was part career fair, part talent show to give college and high school students an idea of how to turn their interest in computers into high-paying jobs.
Recruiters from high-technology companies and defense contractors set up booths next to representatives from universities and the National Security Agency. Speakers extolled the job security that comes with the business of computer security.
"There's a shortage of science and engineering students across the country, and only a handful of schools in Maryland have computer science staff and courses," said Caroline Baker, a conference founder and director of corporate relations at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "We want to raise the awareness of students about careers and degree programs and make it fun."
The fun part was the Cyber Challenge, an all-day brain tester for eight high school and eight college teams. The college students had to hack into a computer, gain control and rummage through files for valuable information. The high-schoolers were required to defend six computer servers against attacks by cunning computer professionals seated across the room.
Students worked some problems alone but huddled at other times to find a solution. Whoops of joy and groans of frustration competed for air space.
Kyle Natale, 16, said he taps into his experience as a soccer player when he competes with the Harford Technical High School Xploiters.
"I love attacking, especially if you know who you're attacking; it's fun. But defending your site means more. It's more important. It means you've done your job," he said.
At the end of a grueling day with no lunch break, a team from Towson University took first place, with the Cybersecurity Club of the University of Maryland, College Park finishing second. In the high school competition, Montgomery County teams finished one-two: the Sherwood Cyber Warriors and the Poolesville Falcons.
"This is play," said Charles Nicholas, the faculty adviser to the UMBC Cyberdawgs and a professor of electrical engineering and computer science. "But when people do this kind of thing in the workforce, then you're talking about real assets of the nation, real people's lives and real financial institutions. Not everyone is suited by temperament or talent for this kind of work."
"Ethical hackers" who attract the attention of NSA talent scouts might be offered full college tuition and other perks under the Stokes Educational Scholarship Program, said Cindy Smith, an agency recruiter.
The Stokes program is for high school seniors planning on majoring in computer science or electrical engineering. In addition to tuition and other expenses, students receive a stipend and hold summer jobs at the NSA. After graduation, they are required to work at the Anne Arundel County-based agency in their area of study for up to five years.
"We're giving them the hacking opportunities they want in a legal manner," Smith said.
Ishmael Johnson-Bey, 16, of Perry Hall would like one of those chances. Twice a week last summer, the Eastern Technical High School junior was driven by his father to Montgomery County to be part of the Sherwood High School team.
Ishmael has been playing with computers "since he was old enough to put Legos together," said Charles Johnson-Bey, an electrical engineer for the aerospace company Lockheed Martin. Recently, the boy designed a website with his younger brother to track their paintball team and hopes to start a computer club at his school.
"It was worth it," said the elder Johnson-Bey of the commute. "All the kids on the team have resumes that they handed out here today, and they met with the president of UMBC. It's going to pay off."