Even though they didn't win first or second place, six Harford Tech students made it all the way to the final round of the 2011 Maryland Cyber Challenge and Conference Oct. 22 at the Baltimore Convention Center, where they — and seven other teams from across the state — defended 10 computer networks from hackers, viruses and other menaces of cyber security.
Team Xploiters, made up of senior — and team captain — Eric Hebert, juniors Kyle Natale, Ben Schulz and Will Pratt, and sophomores Jarrett Booz and Jacob Walter, competed in the championship round after beating other high school teams throughout Maryland in two previous rounds.
Joe Foltz, computers and networking technology teacher at Harford Tech, said the students learned about the challenge in February and have been practicing their skills in cyber security since.
To protect a computer from hackers, security breaches and viruses, these students had to learn how to "harden a system," Foltz said.
"Hardening," he explained, is the process of making a computer system as secure as possible by updating security software, patching — or updating — programs, and creating complicated passwords so they become difficult for hackers to guess.
During the summer, Foltz and the students practiced several times a week for the challenge, which started the weekend of Sept. 9-11.
For the first round, Foltz said, each team had six hours to secure a computer's operating system by finding its vulnerabilities and hardening. Xploiters made it to the next round.
The second round held Sept. 23-25 was a little tougher.
The teams had to fix a set amount of vulnerabilities in the computer system, but didn't know what all needed to be fixed as they progressed. The Tech students made it into the top eight, though they weren't told exactly where they ranked, and they proceeded to the championship.
During the final round Oct. 22, the six Tech students defended 10 computers with different operating systems from hackers and viruses.
While Foltz and the students don't know where they fell in the top eight, they do know it wasn't first or second as Sherwood and Poolesville high schools, both in Montgomery County, won those honors. Foltz believes Harford Tech students ranked sixth as each team's progress was posted and updated throughout the competition.
Two other teams from the school — one comprised of high school students and the other of alumni — also competed in the first two rounds; neither made it to the finals.
While they weren't hacking or defending computers, the Harford Tech students got to listen to guest speakers from the National Security Agency, UMBC and other organizations that are major computer users or training institutions, which was just as important, if not more so, than the rest of the conference, Foltz said.
"There's a lot of opportunities for them," he said of the students learning about internships and summer jobs from the organizations at the conference. "It's good because they get exposed to something fun, but also get to meet all these organizations."
Foltz added that he and the school are in talks with the Harford County Public Schools to change the computers and networking technology course to a cyber security program, possibly for the 2013-2014 school year, so more students can learn the basic necessities of keeping a network secure.
Foltz, who has taught at Harford Teach since the fall of 1994, mentioned that he'll occasionally run into former students who are working in the computer science field. Even his son, Eric, has benefited from the program — he's a computer science major at Fairmont State University in Virginia.
"He's the one who got me into it [cyber security]," Foltz said of his son.
Despite not winning the whole competition, Team Xploiters are already practicing for next year's challenge.
"They're learning a lot by trial and error," Foltz said of the students furthering their cyber security education. Most of the students are self-taught, he added, staying up late and learning through the Internet.
"I learn a lot from some of them," he added.