Class combats cyber crime by promoting ethical hacking skills

Instructor Terry Traylor explains a computer communication process.
Instructor Terry Traylor explains a computer communication process during a cyber security class at North Dakota State University in Fargo on April 3, 2018.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

In a long narrow room with rows of computer screens on tables, 16 students hunch over keyboards on tables or in their laps.

"All right, pull out your devices, let's get ready to go," says instructor Terry Traylor as he calls a hacking class to order.

Traylor is a major in the U.S. Marine Corps, but he's teaching this class at North Dakota State University in Fargo as an unpaid volunteer with the NDSU Institute for Cyber Security Education and Research.

"Normally to get this type of training you have to go to one of the military's post-graduate schools," said Traylor, who now runs a regional recruiting office in North Dakota and Minnesota, but previously was operations officer at the Marine Communications school in California, where cybersecurity is taught to thousands of marines each year.

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He's excited to bring some of the skills honed in the military to an academic setting where he works with associate professor Jeremy Straub to blend knowledge and know how.

"Learning something is different from being able to do something," said Traylor. "I'm experienced in doing things and he's experienced in knowing things and so chocolate and peanut butter, two great things make even more awesome things together."

This isn't a typical classroom, it's a cyber range, a place where students can attack computer networks and fend off attacks from hackers in a controlled environment.

"So you can't use one of the computers that has the attack tools on it to attack anything else on the network," said Straub. "They're not able to see the normal network so it's very well contained."

A growing number of universities are building these cyber rangers. Metropolitan State University in St. Paul has a new cyber range, the first in Minnesota according to the school. The university is also developing MN Cyber, a place where professionals can get top-level cybersecurity training.

By learning to break into computer systems, the NDSU students learn to get in the head of the bad guys and better understand how to stop them.

NDSU junior Isaac Burton asks a question during a cyber security class.
North Dakota State University junior Isaac Burton, from Two Harbors, Minn., asks a question during a cyber security class.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

There are not enough people in government or business with the skills to take on hackers, said Traylor. There are thousands of unfilled cybersecurity jobs, just in the Twin Cities.

"The bad guys always have an interest so having people who understand the bad guys techniques and understand how the bad guys go about trying to gain access to the systems is critically important," said Traylor.

Cyber attacks are becoming a daily fact of life. Whether it's sharing photos on social media, shopping, or paying bills, every use of an electronic device to transfer information now carries some risk.

"That's a part of cyber new normal," said Traylor. "The things that we have to use to communicate, share information, do commerce over are now weaponized against us."

In addition to hacking skills, students get a healthy dose of legal and ethical instruction. Instructors want to be sure they won't use these skills illegally. At the end of the course, they'll take a test to become certified ethical hackers. Yes, that is a real thing, and the certification is a big deal for cybersecurity specialists.

"Since I'm going into computer engineering and the computer science fields there's definitely going to be many places where I can apply this," said Isaac Burton, a junior from Two Harbors, Minn., who's majoring in computer engineering. "If this is going to be my primary job title, like as an ethical hacker, that's unclear right now but it's definitely going to play a big role in the future."

NDSU student Michael Gibbons listens during a cyber security class.
NDSU student Michael Gibbons, from La Crosse, Wis., listens during a cyber security class.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Hacking is new to freshman Michael Gibbons from La Crosse, Wis.

"But now that I've gotten a taste of it, I've sort of thrown myself into the deep end and gotten as much as I can get," said Gibbons, who likes the challenge of understanding cyber attacks. "I find it fascinating. I think it's a great idea to get a different perspective on security so that we can better defend against it, make better programs, better networks."

The skills these students are learning are in high demand.

"And some very high salaries you know coming right out of school with this type of credential, the certified ethical hacker credential that students will be attempting to get at the end of the course, getting you know just below six figures is not uncommon," said Cybersecurity Institute associate director Jeremy Straub.

Traylor watches answers pop up on a screen as students respond to a quiz.
Instructor Terry Traylor watches answers pop up on a screen as students respond to an electronic quiz during a class on cyber security at North Dakota State University in Fargo.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Instructor Terry Traylor jokes about recruiting the class to the Marine Corps, and he really does hope to convince at least one or two to pursue a cybersecurity career in the military. But he says they will have a positive effect on the cyber wars, wherever they end up.

"Now if we don't get any of them and they just go out to Sony or Microsoft or whoever and they take good practices with them, then yeah we won," he said.