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Edward Snowden, NSA code cracking, Chinese government hackers - talk of cyber security is everywhere. And many experts think the United States is simply not up to today's threats. One big reason why: not enough good guys with the right skills.
Well, Dan Carsen of member station WBHM has the story of one Alabama school district that's trying to change that.
DAN CARSEN, BYLINE: You can literally see rockets when you drive into Huntsville, Alabama, aka the Rocket City. NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center is here, along with scores of aerospace and defense contractors. It also has one of the largest fully digital school districts - 24,000 kids use laptops or tablets instead of textbooks. And all this partly explains this unusual class.
RODNEY VISSER: We'll go in and pretend to be the Chinese or the Russians or whoever and either hack in the computer systems or break into buildings and gain access to critical information, the networks and cool stuff like that.
CARSEN: That's Rodney Visser. He's a threat provider for the Defense Department, meaning he hacks military networks to expose vulnerabilities. But at the moment, he's guest-lecturing 20 students in Grissom High School's new cybersecurity class. Huntsville Schools and U.S. Army Cyber Command are developing the curriculum, which will eventually begin in middle school.
The goal is to get more people into the cybersecurity career pipeline. James Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says military branches are competing for high-tech expertise. He explains government and private sector demand for those cyber experts is increasing as key systems become more web connected.
JAMES LEWIS: Global financial systems are dependent. Electrical systems are dependent. You could turn off the water supply, maybe the traffic system. The ability to disrupt is becoming, unfortunately, a lot easier to pull off.
CARSEN: Guest instructor Visser points out that also applies to dams, nuclear power plants, missiles and radar systems. Add private sector cybercrime, and you can see why security providers across the board are looking for talent. Huntsville's new farm team may include students like Grissom junior Matthew Rogers.
MATTHEW ROGERS: The infrastructure damage could happen in a hit of a button. So it's very important because the governments currently are very good at offense, but none of them are very good at defense, probably something I'm looking to get into in my future career.
CARSEN: Junior Christopher Lin loves cracking codes. He had been interested in programming. But now...
CHRISTOPHER LIN: I also have a huge interest in security, just because I hear all the news about security. And all the stuff that's going on is really cool.
CARSEN: But early preparation for these jobs raises at least two issues. Grissom cybersecurity teacher Christine Sutton says some students want to learn how to hack their classmates' accounts. She doesn't teach those skills. And secondly, cybersecurity careers often require what other jobs don't, something that, say, drug use or ill-advised social media posts could easily derail.
CHRISTINE SUTTON: They're going to need a security clearance. And there are a lot of lifestyle choices that kids are making right now in high school that could stand in the way of them having some of the really exciting careers.
VISSER: Yeah, that's pretty important stuff. That's an email, right?
CARSEN: Back in the classroom, instructor Rodney Visser is optimistic. He says he's working to make sure future cyber defenders meet the threat better than his generation is now, and he thinks economic and national security depends on it.
VISSER: Networks all over the place are getting attacked and pretty much constantly. They're always getting scanned and probed. So that's where some of you bright young minds might come into it.
CARSEN: Army and Huntsville leaders hope their curriculum will eventually spread across the country. At the end of the class, an enthusiastic junior admitted he skipped AP history to sit in on the session. Visser told him half-jokingly: I think you made the right choice. For NPR News, I'm Dan Carsen in Birmingham.
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