A tiny computer lab on the second floor of Riverside Hall at Sacramento State is producing high-tech warriors who could some day protect the United States from cyber threats.
The 13 students – 12 men and a woman – are enrolled in the federal government’s CyberCorps: Scholarship for Service program. It covers about $25,000 annually for tuition, books, health insurance and living expenses for up to two years in exchange for service to the United States after graduation.
“People get excited about working for the ‘Men in Black’ – the three-letter agencies,” said Chris Lawson, a junior at California State University, Sacramento, a scholarship recipient.
CyberCorps is administered by the Department of Homeland Security and the National Science Foundation, and it is part of the federal government’s response to technology infrastructure threats, according to CyberCorps. Sacramento State has offered the scholarship program for three years.
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“We have to deter attacks,” said professor Isaac Ghansah, after his computer forensics class Wednesday evening.
Once students graduate, they will help protect the country from attacks not only to computer systems, but critical infrastructure such as the electrical grid, gas pipelines and banks, he said.
On Wednesday, six young men in jeans, T-shirts and hooded sweatshirts lounged on plastic chairs in a private computer lab which was accessible only to scholarship holders with a pass code. Backpacks filled shelves on one wall. Bicycles were stored in the corner.
The students said the scholarships weren’t their sole motivation for joining CyberCorps. Some said they liked the challenges the program offers, others the access to government agencies that could offer them jobs after graduation.
The best opportunity to meet employers comes during an annual trip to Washington D.C., where all 400 scholarship students from across the country meet with recruiters from government agencies.
Lawson said he applied for the scholarship because cybersecurity presents ever-changing challenges.
“Weaknesses change constantly,” he said. “I’m always learning. My whole career, I will be learning.”
Michael Garrett says he was influenced by Richard Clarke, a former adviser to three presidents, who has called for new defense policies to reduce the likelihood of a cyber 9-11. “It’s interesting to see how vulnerable we are to offensive attacks,” Garrett said.
Pao Fang became fascinated with cybersecurity as a child because of television programs like “The X-Files” and the movie “WarGames.” He hopes to work with the FBI.
“It’s adventurous,” Fang said. “The security field is a great challenge.”
The students practice hacking into simulated computer systems in search of weaknesses. They call themselves “White Hats” because their intent is to improve security, as opposed to “Black Hats” who infiltrate computer systems with bad intentions.
The camaraderie in the room is apparent. The scholars meet for lunch, after school and on weekends. Every Thursday afternoon, second-year scholarship holders develop computer programs with flaws and challenge first-year scholars to find them. The room serves as a sort of think tank, Garrett said.
Sacramento State received a $1.1 million initial grant four years ago to start CyberCorps on campus. University officials have applied for a new grant that would fund more scholarships and increase next year’s enrollment to 16 students, said Behnam Arad, director of the CSUS program.
In preparation for the possibility of new funding, Ghansah tried to recruit new members to the CyberCorps during his class Wednesday. He went over the criteria: U.S. citizenship, a 3.0 grade-point average, at least three semesters left of school and the submission of an essay, test scores and referrals. Only one person in the class of 20 showed an interest in signing up for the competitive program.
The additional money also could mean a face-lift to the little lab used by CyberCorps. Arad wants an electronic whiteboard where students can put up problems and solve them as a group, as well as a designated network so that the “White Hats” don’t impact the network used by the rest of the students.
While at CSUS, scholarship students take courses in cybersecurity and spend their summers in federal internships. After graduation, students are expected to find jobs with federal, state or local agencies. Students who don’t work in an approved position or who leave a job early must repay a pro-rated portion of the scholarship money they received.
The cybersecurity classes at CSUS include “Computer Forensics Principles and Practice” and “Cryptography Principles and Practice.” Another course, “Computer Systems Attacks and Countermeasures,” divides students into two teams that alternately defend and attack a fake corporate computer system. A winner is proclaimed after a two-week competition that can include clandestine nighttime attacks.
The national CyberCorps: Scholarship for Service program began in the early 1990s and has since produced close to 2,000 graduates nationwide, Arad said. Not every school is eligible to offer the scholarships. Schools generally must be a National Center of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance Education, a designation they must reapply for every few years.
The center at Sacramento State, directed by Ghanash, offers classes to about 100 students. UC Davis also has this designation, as well as the added designation of being a national research center, but does not offer the scholarship program.
Since the Sacramento program started, it has sent interns to Hewlett-Packard, the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco and the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Lab. Graduates have worked for the U.S. Navy’s Information Dominance Systems Command and the Mitre Corp., among others.
“I’ve been able to pick and choose (internships),” said Joubin Jabbari, a senior who has interned at Mitre Corp., which does research for the federal government, and is making final plans to join the company after graduation. He said most students in the program graduate with salaries from $60,000 to $100,000 a year.