Students from across Carroll County gathered at the Community Media Center in Westminster on Saturday, laptops in hand, in order to crack codes, exploit weaknesses and hack their way to victory at the second Ethical Hacking competition.

The competition, held by the Mid-Atlantic Gigabit Innovation Collaboratory Inc., otherwise known as MAGIC, invited students from Carroll County Public Schools, private schools, and McDaniel and Carroll Community colleges to participate in a quest for digital flags, using computer and hacking skills to find these prizes hidden within a variety of websites, downloads and packages.


According to Robert Wack, president of the MAGIC board of directors, the event came about through a partnership between their organization, a Johns Hopkins University biophysics lab and Freedom Broadband. Together they built the Networking Sandbox, a rack of donated computer equipment preloaded with software to create a virtual environment for the student hackers to work in.

"The goal today is for them to have fun and learn something about network security," Wack said. "The format is a capture-the-flag-style series of problems that they have to solve. If they solve it correctly, they get points. When the clock runs out, the team with the most points wins."

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The teams entered the virtual environment in which they were greeted with a number of tasks and technical puzzles. By using their know-how, the aid of several adult volunteer coaches and a liberal use of Google, they started to learn ways that problems could be hidden in the code of websites, software, images and more.

Thom Bethune, of Freedom Broadband, said it's vital for students to have the opportunity to learn about these kinds of technical skills to be prepared for tomorrow's world.

"Technology is here to stay. We have to be aware of it, demystify it and get people involved in moving it forward," Bethune said. "Technology is everywhere; it's part of everything we do. Part of what we're trying to do is show these kids the tools and skills that are available."

While introducing the students to the task at hand, Bethune said that hacking in its earliest form was about trying to make software better. Ethical hackers worked to find weaknesses and vulnerabilities so they could be fixed.

Prior to participation in the contest, participants had to sign a form detailing the "10 Principles of Ethical Hacking," including respecting others, treating others online as they would want to be treated, and taking full responsibility for digital actions and their consequences.

Jason Stambaugh, MAGIC executive director, gave the students a piece of advice before they embarked on their hacking journey.

"Through this experience today, you're going to learn some really powerful skills, and with those skills, you can either become a superhero or supervillain," Stambaugh said. "So I want you guys to forget about villains and make sure you become superheroes in this space."

On the leader board, which was rapidly updated and projected at the front of the room, teams battled for first place, earning points for each hidden flag they found. At the end of the two-and-a-half-hour contest, the Falcons, a team of Gerstell Academy students, found themselves in first place.

Tenth-grade student Sid Gupta, of the Falcons, said this was his first time participating in something like this. He said one of the most difficult challenges included having to search for the flag and eventually convert it from ASCII into readable text.

"After we got it right, there was just one moment of absolute bliss," Gupta said. "It feels amazing to have won."