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This is not your traditional summer camp. There are no ghost stories around the fire, no hiking through the woods, no macrame. Instead, the middle and high school students attending the NSA's summer camp learn how to decrypt passwords, exploit network security flaws, and build robots.
That's right, as of Summer 2015, the NSA has a summer camp -- and it's turning America's youth into an army of hackers. What could go wrong?
The NSA has partnered with the National Science Foundation to sponsor 43 "GenCyber" summer camps across 18 states. It's part of a friendlier new face to the warrantless-wiretapping, domestic-spying agency.
It's also a talent development scheme. The agency wants to convince young people to pursue cybersecurity careers, preferably with the NSA. Thousands of new cybersecurity jobs are expected in the coming years, meaning the NSA will have to put on a lot of camps if it's to stay ahead of the anticipated shortage of cybersecurity professionals.
More than 1,400 kids are participating in the camps, according to The New York Times. Young aspiring hackers and cybersecurity specialists must apply for admission, but the camps themselves are free. In fact, GenCyber participants are given Raspberry Pi devices, so they can take their hacking work home with them.
The camps don't hold back on teaching cybersecurity skills, either -- and those skills are largely hacking skills. Kids in the NSA camp learn how to identify and exploit security weaknesses, how to crack encrypted passwords and how to build their own drones. There's also instruction in more innocuous skills, like programming, computer assembly, and network forensics.
If you're concerned about kids being taught how to hack into protected systems, you're not alone. Training teenagers in hacking doesn't seem too different than training youth to manufacture explosives -- a helpful skill which could be easily abused. Young people would never be foolish enough to misuse their new decryption skills, though -- right?
To protect against that, all the camps have a strong emphasis on ethics, including the potential legal repercussions of hacking into a parent's adultery website or our government's personnel files. But as one camp teacher notes, the ethics lessons aren't always the most engaging for students. According to her, the kids "are more interested in the attacking things."
Editor's Note, July 12, 2016: This post was first published in July, 2015. It has since been updated.
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