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September 13, 2013 09:45 PM

A Hacker's World

Madison, SD

Dakota State University offers the only undergraduate program on cyber-security in the entire country sanctioned by the NSA. That government agency is looking to find the best and the brightest in a field often viewed as a crime -- hacking.

At 10:00 on a weekday morning, a large lecture hall at Dakota State University is full of students eager to take the next step in their major. It is not a business class. It is not physics or English, either. This is a class on cyber-security.

"We made a concerted effort about five years ago to really go on the offensive side of security, which is the hacking side," associate professor of cyber-security Josh Pauli said.

Pauli is teaching a new generation of students how to be professional hackers.

"Hacking at its root is really making a piece of machinery or technology do something that it wasn't intended to do," Pauli said.

Hacking became a mainstream topic after the release of the 1983 film "WarGames", where a high schooler accidentally finds his way into a government computer and starts a countdown toward a nuclear war.

"It was a good thing, it was a good thing to be a hacker. That meant you were really good, you could pedal systems together, you could make something out of nothing," Pauli said.

Yet, Pauli still finds himself battling the negative views of his profession.

"You can take something you learn in chemistry class and make a bomb and do some really ugly things. It's the same analogy," Pauli said.

What about the students who are learning how to hack?

"It's not really this blackbox-type activity. There's a lot more to it than people think and it's actually a really important thing to do," student Chad Mitzel said.

Mitzel says he has always been a curious person, taking things apart and making them different.  It's that curiosity that brought him to appreciate hacking and what it can accomplish.

"Every aspect of our lives touches computer technology at some point. In order to really secure it, we need to know how to break it," Mitzel said.

That's what Pauli is teaching his students, the ethical ways of making existing security systems that much stronger against potential attacks.

"This has really permeated every industry, it's not just a big federal government thing. Banking, healthcare, the energy sector is probably the most recent," Pauli said.

A dark cloud has existed over this field for years, giving a negative connotation to the word "hacking," but now the winds of change have come, giving these students an opportunity to take advantage of a new world.

For younger students like Alex Barutt, he finds his work in the hacking world leading toward something much bigger than him.

"They say two or three years from now, our war isn't going to be running trucks over in Iraq, it's a cyber-war," Barutt said.

Dakota State University receives a grant from the National Security Agency called the CyberCorps scholarships, giving students the opportunity to work for the government to make the security systems in different agencies stronger. For Barutt, he sees this as the perfect chance to put his hacking education to work.

"You get in the CyberCorp program here, and that puts you in a group of 400 out of the United States," Barutt said.

He has two more years of work and experience before he reaches that level.

"I still have a lot, I've only scratched the surface, I still have a long ways to go," Barutt said.

As for Mitzel, his plans are to make the lives of future hacking students more difficult by helping private businesses protect themselves.

"My personal preference is actually building software, and then building the tool that you use to try to break the program," Mitzel said.

The main point everyone in these classes want to get across is simple; nobody is safe.

"Given the motivation and time, everything is hackable. So, the real rub on businesses and government is to lessen their likelihood of attack," Pauli said.

Pauli adds that there are currently around 400 students in the DSU cyber-security program, but he anticipates that number to reach close to 800 in the coming years.

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