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Students At Vt. College Learn Computer Protection

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A hacker looks at lines of code on a laptop (Photo Credit: Adam Berry / Getty Images)

A hacker looks at lines of code on a laptop (Photo Credit: Adam Berry / Getty Images)

NORTHFIELD, Vt. (AP) — Deep in the bowels of a building at the nation’s oldest private military academy, students from across the globe are being taught to fight the war of the future.

They file into the restricted-access room at Norwich University here in Northfield not to study tank or artillery battles or plot a bombing run but to fight mock battles on banks of computers to learn how to protect communications networks.

Such cyber war games are well-established between schools in the United States. Norwich has added a new twist: One of the other teams is from Macedonia and another from Oman.

In a six-week seminar nearing its end, students take turns building and defending computer networks, attacking one or monitoring the operation.

This semester is the first time Norwich is working with the overseas schools. The mock combat with overseas opponents adds authenticity, said Jacob Evans, 20, a junior from Tuftonboro, N.H.

“It’s much more exciting to know that the people behind the other teams’ computers are sitting on the other side of the world than if we were competing with our classmates here,” said. “Not many people get to participate in exercises like this, with security professionals and students from around the world, and I count myself very lucky.”

The technical training is only a part of the skills needed to protect computer networks from probes that could allow an attacker full access to a target computer.

“It is about the people. Security is a people thing. It’s not a hardware and software issue; those are just tools,” said Peter Stephenson, the director of Norwich’s Center for Advanced Computing and Digital Forensics.

A Norwich dean who had taught at the Sultan Qaboos University in Oman first suggested partnering with the school. The school also which works closely with the Vermont National Guard in protecting computer networks, and the Guard has a formal relationship with the military in Macedonia. Through that, Norwich connected with the University for Information Science in Ohrid, Macedonia. Officials see it as a possible money maker and they’re considering getting other schools involved, Stephenson said.

Both the National Security Agency and Department of Homeland Security have recognized given Norwich a designation that makes the students eligible for special U.S. government scholarships. Norwich’s information assurance program regularly sends students who have graduated with bachelor degrees into industry or government service.

But its graduates are not necessarily headed to the public sector. They’re in the Cyber Weapons Range War Room to learn about the electronics that are critical to protecting the interconnected, global economy, be it at the Department of Defense, a local bank or a military-industrial network that controls oil shipments in the Persian Gulf.

Stephenson said most of the 15 to 20 students who graduate from the undergraduate program every year have jobs before the end of the first semester of their senior years. Many of them can expect to be paid about $60,000 annually in their first jobs.

Though Norwich boasts a Corps of Cadets and was the original school to offer military commissions through what became known as the Reserve Officer Training Corps, many of its students are civilians.

There are no military or government secrets involved in the classwork. The hardware and software tools and the techniques used in the war games are readily available to the public, many for free.

The skills taught at Norwich could be referred to as hacking, or the illegal penetration of computer networks. But the best way to protect a computer network is to seek its vulnerabilities, the experts say.

Norwich has always placed an emphasis on instilling in its students the ethical standards that keep their behavior within the law.

“As far as I know we have never turned out an illegal hacker here,” Stephenson said.

After all, people interested in hacking could learn the same skills on their own, said Norwich junior Jacob Berry, 20, of Ossipee, N.H.

“It’s less expensive for you to learn this stuff on your own,” said Berry. “You get more out of college because you get a structured environment, but if you’re going to become an illegal hacker it’s probably not the right way for you to go anyway.”

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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