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ROTC teens win in war against cyberterrorism

Published: Monday, Dec. 14 2009 12:00 a.m. MST

High school seniors TJ Boender, Adam Thurman and Jorge Lerma debug a computer system during a recent Cyber Patriots competition.

Photo Maj. Kit Workman

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CLEARFIELD — Stern-faced and imposing in an Air Force Junior ROTC uniform, 17-year-old Jorge Lerma stares down his adversary.

The laptop in front of him, flashing a menacing "error" message, he doesn't even flinch.

"I've seen a lot of errors, but I've never seen anything like this," says Lerma, shaking his head ominously. "I'm going to need some backup."

Using a simulation called Cyber Patriot II, he and five other ROTC students from Clearfield High School are learning to fight a different kind of military battle. Rather than securing borders with guns, Lerma and his friends secure computer network systems with firewalls and impossible-to-crack passwords.

"The No. 1 concern in the world today is cyberterrorism," said Maj. Kit Workman, Utah president of the Air Force Association. "Our lives depend on computers. The government is interested in training up a generation that knows how to protect the country on a virtual level."

Via hacks and bits of malicious computer code, criminals can disrupt, disable and glean confidential information from hospitals, banks and 911 services. One man a world away can remotely control a network of computers, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The government spends billions of dollars annually repairing computer systems that have fallen victim to cyberterrorism.

During a recent competition, the Clearfield boys, who call themselves the Furious Falcon Five, raced to secure three computer systems from viruses, spyware and remote intruders. The point of the game? To do it faster than 21 other teams seated in front of computers across the country. Previously, the team had debugged its way to become one of the top eight hacker-blocking teams in the world, beating out more than 300 competitors. In February, they are headed to Florida for the finals, where they will go head to head against live hackers.

This is the program's second year. Cyber Patriot I, developed in 2008, was a test version limited to a few teams in Florida.

Workman, Clearfield's adviser, didn't know where to begin when his students approached him in September about participating in the competition.

"I don't know the first thing about computers," he said. Before Workman retired from the military to take a job as an ROTC instructor, he served as a helicopter pilot and a combat camera officer.

Outside of surfing the Internet, playing video games and typing up homework assignments on Microsoft Word, neither did the students.

"I was completely computer illiterate," said Cyber Patriot competitor TJ Boender, 17. "I knew how to get on Facebook and change the background on my screen. That's it."

It took more than 100 hours of training and the help of David Boswell, a system engineer for Clearfield-based SabiOso, but now, just a few months after beginning training, the five boys are veritable encyclopedias of computer security.

"It's never boring," said Robert Estrada, 16. "We're always learning something new."

The air was thick with adrenaline at the competition as the boys hustled to patch up more than 60 security risks. Adam Thurman, 17, called out commands, directing the little group's defense.

"They're going to throw us some loops, but we can handle it," he said. "We've got this."

There were moments of calm, when the team sat quietly, speedily typing out code. There were moments of ruckus, when, after figuring out a particularly difficult problem, the boys sprang out of their seats whooping and hollering to high-five one another.

Workman and Boswell, allowed only to observe, paced nervously.

"This gets pretty intense," Workman said. "They're so pumped up, you'd think they were playing basketball or something."

e-mail: estuart@desnews.com

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