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Shaping the Next Generation

Children gear up to take on ethical hacking and technology through Hak4Kidz.

By Mary Stroka

"0DDJ0BB" shows a child and his mother how to use the OSI Model in the Networking Playground Hak4Kidz 2014. Infagard will support this year's event June 27th at the Tech Nexus office in Chicago.
“0DDJ0BB” shows a child and his mother how to use the OSI Model in the Networking Playground Hak4Kidz 2014. Infagard will support this year’s event June 27th at the Tech Nexus office in Chicago.

When Hak4Kidz president David Schwartzberg’s son, now 9, started to ask his father, a senior security engineer at MobileIron, questions about how technology works, they took the step of writing a book together for children about how computers work. The book, “Computers for Kids: Something In, Something Out,” published in 2011, helped children learn about computers, but Schwartzberg wanted to do more.

He and Robert Wagner, a security engineer at Bromium Labs, met at conferences and it hit him — why not create a technology conference for children?

And so Hak4Kidz was born. “The inspiration came from my [three] kids, and they love it,” Schwartzberg said. “They’re excited for this year’s conference.”

On June 27, Hak4Kidz will host its second annual conference in Chicago for children that teaches them technology as it’s evolving. It’s an event geared for children ages 8 to 17, but younger children reading at a higher level may gain from it as well. He and Wagner are expecting at least 125 people (kids plus their parents) this year, up from 100 people, including 38 kids, who came last year.

The conference introduces children and their parents to a number of elements of cybersecurity, with the aim of allowing children to learn security and safety ethics, what security attacks look like in a safe environment, whether they might like to pursue a career in technology, as well as basic technology skills that could even help them make business decisions in the future. The event includes peer presentations, workshops and activity stations, all of which give the kids an opportunity to learn and explore.

In the peer presentations, children from 8 to 26 years old have 25 minutes to deliver a message on something security-related that they’re doing or have studied. Last year, a 14-year-old from Michigan spoke to other kids in an interactive presentation about how security concepts relate to building safeguards in the video game “Minecraft.” Schwartzberg and Wagner said this opportunity for children to learn from each other helps them develop confidence and skills, perhaps inspiring them to learn more about a topic and be able to give a presentation the next time.

The workshops, led by instructors and aides in a structured class setting, are on topics such as robotics, “Minecraft” and Linux. Schwartzberg noted that one of last year’s presenters incorporated a slide that read, “Don’t learn to hack, hack to learn.” Wagner added, “At the end of the day, that’s what hacking is — figuring out how things work.”

Activity stations, which are short hands-on labs, provide the children the freedom to immerse themselves with challenges. There are different levels for different ages on the various subjects, such as cryptography. The kids can start out with decoding a message formed using basic substitution and continue to a code that uses Base64 if they want. One of the stations even allows children to build an AM radio.

“How often do you get to sit in front of technology and explore it?” Wagner asked rhetorically. Parents protect the technology and there are basic rules and safety staff to offer the kids protection with the materials, but ultimately, “we want [the kids] to feel like it’s their conference,” he said.

On the other hand, the conference also teaches parents how to talk with their kids about Internet safety and security, Wagner said. “[At last year’s event] the parents had about as much fun as the kids. Lots of adults were asking questions, including ones about Internet networking.”

Wagner remarked, “None of this is what the media considers hacking. It’s learning and questioning and becoming inquisitive about technology so you can be more informed and less susceptible to security threats.”

Schwartzberg added that introducing children to more technology and developing mentorship enables them to form new perspectives, even if they don’t pursue technology as a career. “Even if they’re not in technology, they can adopt the mental behavior [that comes with learning about technology and science] and look at things differently. They might be more successful executives. … With the foundational core beliefs, they can help change industries for the better in the future and see that there are things that need to be improved and better ways of doing things. And they can recognize it’s OK to evolve.”

Chicago Infragard sponsors the event. Members can submit ideas for presentations and activity stations. Hak4Kidz also welcomes volunteers to staff the event and additional company sponsorships.

The event will be held on June 27 at the TechNexus office, located at 20 N. Wacker Drive, Suite #1200. Tickets are $40 for children and $25 for chaperones, which includes a catered meal, a T-shirt and prizes. For more information, visit www.hak4kidz.com, www.facebook.com/Hak4Kidz or twitter.com/Hak4Kidz.end_icon