About 20 high school students have been spending this week at Norwich University solving fictional crimes in cyberspace. They're attending a free summer camp funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Security Agency.
The NSA calls these sleuthing sessions “gen-cyber camps: inspiring the next generation of cyber stars.”
There are about 40 different programs nationwide.
In a cyber-security computer lab at Norwich University, 17- and 18-year olds dig for clues to a bank robbery being planned by Bonnie and Clyde. Camp co-director Katya Lopez says the exercise re-writes the history of the infamously elusive bank robbers.
“They’ve committed the actual crimes that they are planning, but instead of communicating through phones and letters as they were known to do, they’re now using email and sending attachments to their documents and plans,” she says.
On the blackboard are questions the kids are trying to answer by trolling for sent emails, hidden computer files and other digital detritus.
“Are Bonnie and Clyde married?”
“Are there other gang members?”
“What kind of car might they be driving?”
“Can they foresee their deaths?”
The campers are not allowed to Google the answers, or screen Bonnie and Clyde's biopic. They're just wielding the same cyber-tool real law enforcers use to penetrate computer hard drives.
Marisa Gallegon, from Chicago, is trying to find out if Clyde has proposed to his accomplice.
“We found one of her emails to Clyde asking if he would hurry up and ask her to marry him, so that’s just —they’re not even engaged, even though she is looking for wedding dresses for some reason,” she explains.
But Gallegon is not fooled by such wishful thinking. She figures if there were a wedding in the offing, Bonnie would be sending evites.
It’s a lighthearted exercise, but the skills it teaches could save a life someday. Norwich cyber-security professor Peter Stephenson co-directs this camp. His consulting firm helps law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, solve or prevent crimes. One of the consultants' current targets is someone bullying a 14-year old girl online, suggesting she kill herself.
“So ... you end up with an opportunity to intervene, to find out who is doing this and stop it,” Stephenson says.
In addition to crime detection, campers learn to defend websites against hackers.
But young brains also need play time.
“Now we’re are going to turn you all into monkeys,” Stephenson announces as counselors pass out bananas.
But not for snacks. The campers will learn to convert the fruit into joysticks for a video game competition.
“These are geeks," Stephenson says affectionately. "Like me. And they need down time. But they can also learn a lot from this exercise, like how electric current can pass through a lot of different objects. And how a computer actually works.”
Plus, the bananas will come in handy later that night for nutritious s’mores.