While many South Dakota teens will spend their summer vacation soaking up the sun at the beach, others will be dipping their toes into the murky underworld of computer hacking. Dakota State University in Madison will host a week-long camp in July for high schoolers interested in the field of cyber security.
With less than a week left in the school year, O'Gorman juniors Jack Donovan and Danny Fritz have their summer vacation planned out with computer precision.
"Hack your friends to see how you can win the battle," Fritz said.
That's right. Both students are among 180 high schoolers from across the country who've signed up to attend summer camp for hackers.
"I don't plan on being a malicious hacker. But I hope that someday I can protect someone from a hacker, using the skills I would learn," Fritz said.
Dakota State University sees this first-ever camp not only as a powerful recruiting tool for future students, but also as an introduction into the high-demand profession of cyber-security.
"We're trying to reach that 16,17,18-year-old kid who enjoys critical thinking and enjoys tearing apart problems," Josh Pauli of Dakota State University cyber-security teacher Josh Pauli said.
Each teen brings a different skill set to camp. Some of them are already self-taught hackers.
"I don't know as much as a very high-grade hacker would know how to shut down a whole computer, like shut down a whole network, but I know the basics of it," Donovan said.
With a single focus on combating cyber threats, the campers will pick up computer skills they might not otherwise learn in a regular classroom setting.
"The camp's based on five-days of strictly cyber-security so it's different from your seven-hour day at school with eight or nine different classes," Fritz said.
Rampant outbreaks of computer bugs and data breaches infiltrating every sector of the economy have sparked a growing interest in cyber-security at younger ages.
"It's just been a career I've always been interested in. The possibilities are endless," Donovan said.
Some people may think teenagers are too young and too irresponsible to be learning the finer points of hacking. But instructors point out that when it comes to combating cyber threats, the future is now.
"Our youngest campers are going to be sophomores in high school so they're in that 15-16 range. But geez, in five to seven years, they're going to be out there as the front-line people," Pauli said.
Campers could enroll on a first-come, first-serve basis. Organizers thought about conducting background checks on each of the students, but decided against it. Instead, instructors will place a heavy emphasis on the ethics of hacking.
"Why in the world would you want to teach kids this? We use the analogy we talk to chemistry people, if I wanted to make bombs, I could probably figure that out from my chemistry class. We use the same analogy here. If you want to do destructive nefarious things with what we're teaching you, you could. It's no different than chemistry which is why we back in what's the overall mission of this camp," Pauli said.
After all, in order to foil a hacker, one must think like a hacker.
"Know your enemy. That's kind of a hacker mantra, or a defensive mantra," Pauli said.
"It's scary what people who know more than me could seriously do some major harm," Donovan said.
That's why Dakota State instructors hope to get this generation that's grown up with computers to unleash their inner-hacker, for good, not evil.
"Maybe hack Jack a little bit for fun," Fritz said.
The free camp is funded through a $118,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.
Teens can get their names on a waiting list for priority enrollment for the summer of 2015.
To register, click here.