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Teaching hacking helps students, professors say

'The students love it'

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When Sam Bowne visited the DEFCON hacking conference in 2006, he saw a lot of people having fun with a really interesting topic: computer security.

As a professor of computer science at the City College of San Francisco, Bowne wanted to find a way to make computer security accessible to the average student. So, following his trip to DEFCON last year, he talked with the administrators at CCSF and got permission to start up a class with a hacking lab. The first course - called "Ethical Hacking and Network Defense" - was a total success, he told attendees at the DEFCON on Friday.

"This is a good thing, because the students love it," Bowne said. "They learn the material and have fun at the same time."

In the past, some security firms and universities have worried that teaching computer-science students how to hack could lure them to the Dark Side of security - especially if the courses went beyond computer intrusion and into cybercrime. The University of Calgary came under fire when it introduced classes that would task students with creating computer viruses and spam networks.

However, ethical hacking courses have become more mature and more accepted. Teaching hacking started as an effort by serious hobbyist groups, such as the L0pht and GhettoHackers, then became the purview of bleeding-edge companies founded by hackers, and finally started making its way into schools - mainly community colleges.

During a question-and-answer session following his presentation, Bowne and other educators criticized universities that take a hard stance against the teaching of hacking as narrow thinking.

"Colleges are not about sealing up information and hiding it away," Bowne said.

Others educators agreed. One attendee who identified himself as a professor at Emporia State University in Kansas said that many universities are starting to evaluate courses. Emporia State fully supported teaching ethical hacking, he said, offering a course titled "Computer Attack Essentials" that teaches "the techniques and tools to detect and evaluate ... vulnerable points of known exploits in network and operating systems," according to the course description (PDF).

Other attendees supported the idea of teaching hacking as a way to understand the risks to corporate networks and personal computers. Security firm Immunity teaches courses to managers and executives so they can make better decisions regarding their companies' defenses, said founder and principal researcher David Aitel.

"First of all, it's fun, so it really does engage them in the technology," he said. "It also makes them better at their jobs. When vendors pitch them on their products, they know enough to gauge what the sales people are saying."

When Bowne started his course at the City College of San Francisco, 80 students had signed up. When it ended, only 40 had passed. Such a success rate is typical for community colleges, he said.

"Students are not working toward degrees, but are looking for job experience," Bowne said.

Bowne only worried about one student, but not for being unethical. The student acted with a typical hacker mentality, not following the course material and getting only what he wanted out of the course, Bowne said. He had a failing grade and did not take the tests, but he maintained all the computers in the lab and the teacher found him indispensable.

The rest of the class went off without a hitch.

"At city college, I had no real problems," Bowne said. "But the students were 30 and 40 year-olds with kids. They didn't want to be hackers. They just wanted to get better at their jobs."

To do that, teaching attacker's techniques is as valuable as teaching how to defend against the attacks, said Leon Johnson, a security analyst with the University of Texas at San Antonio and a member of the Center for Infrastructure Assurance and Security, which runs the school's annual cyberdefense competition.

"It is not so much that you are teaching hacking, but comprehensive security," he said. "If you teach only defensive security, that is not enough. You also have to teach offensive security."

However, Johnson did acknowledge that teaching ethical hacking is more of a challenge at the university level because some students may be more likely to satisfy their curiosity than worry about breaking laws.

"It's a youthful thing," he said. "When you are young and you are learning to drive, you are more likely to drive fast."

If you have tips or insights on this topic, please contact SecurityFocus.

This article originally appeared in Security Focus.

Copyright © 2007, SecurityFocus

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