Get them young: How Romania is creating next wave of white-hat hackers in schools

Companies, organizations, and the Romanian government are trying to attract children into the cybersecurity field by giving them something for free.

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"High school is where the basis of everything is build, from digital skills to understanding the basis of coding," says TechSoup Romania's Elena Coman.

Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Dorin Pena was in his second year of high school when he enrolled in the Cisco Academy. He was later hired by the company and now, aged 34 years, is its general manager for Romania.

Because the course he took as a teenager has turned out to be such a milestone in his career, Pena wants to encourage other children to follow the same path.

Despite Romania's legacy in the cybersecurity field, he believes it's important that the country address its talent shortage. And tech companies such as Cisco, NGOs, and the technocrat-heavy government of Romania have the same agenda when it comes to building skills.

The country's ministry of education plans to add cybersecurity classes for children aged between 11 and 14 years as of next year, to help them identify an attack and get them interested in the topic.

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On top of that initiative, companies are organizing training for teenagers and offering freebies, while nonprofit organization TechSoup is taking computer-science teachers to visit tech firms in an effort to help them understand what kind of skills the industry needs.

It's a concerted effort to fight a global phenomenon that's hitting even Romania, a long-time leader in European cybersecurity talent. Worldwide, the number of unfilled security jobs will reach between one and two million by 2019. Some 82 percent of tech professionals feel there is a shortage of people with such skills, according to an Intel Security study published in July.

The Romanian government is working towards making cybersecurity modules mandatory for secondary school children, by including them in the computer-science syllabus. The aim is for the syllabus to teach them the basics of being safe online. If all goes well, the program will be up and running a year from now, according to Dan Nechita, counselor to the prime minister.

"On one hand, this approach would make young users safer in the online world. On the other hand, it could get them interested in this field, which is becoming increasingly important," Nechita says.

To this end, the ministry of education has been working closely with national computer security incident response team CERT.

Additionally, Cisco's course for training white-hat hackers is rising in popularity, and high-school students can enroll for free.

"The number of graduates grew by more than 25 percent in 2016," Pena says. It has reached 200 students in the past year. Judging by the number of attendees, Romania ranks 6th in Europe, ahead of Poland and Sweden, in a table lead by Italy and France.

The Cisco course, called Introduction to Cybersecurity, explores the topic of cybersecurity in a practical manner. It teaches high school students about the most common threats, attacks and vulnerabilities, data confidentiality and best practices for using the internet. There are five modules, plus activities, lab exercises, quizzes, and a final exam.

"[Students] are also being introduced to the business environment with courses that teach them how businesses can protect their operations from cyberattacks," Cisco's Pena says. Those who want to learn more can enroll in CCNA Security.

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Antivirus company Avira, which locates a third of its team in Romania, is using a different approach. It has signed a partnership with the ministry of education to offer 200,000 Antivirus Pro licenses free to high-school students, a pilot it plans to extend to other countries, if it proves effective.

"Providing high-school students with premium antivirus software goes beyond day-to-day device protection. It's meant to educate them about cybersecurity and encourage them to acknowledge the hidden side of the internet," an Avira spokesperson said.

The antivirus company is combining its license giveaway with education, and has organized several mobile security training schemes in Romania. "To our surprise, some of the teachers attended the workshop as well, not only students."

Educators can also benefit from TechSoup's initiative, designed with the Romanian American Foundation. It brings teachers to visit local tech companies to get the feeling of the industry, and to learn what kind of skills companies need.

"High school is where the basis of everything is build, from digital skills to understanding the basis of coding, and the quality of the high-school teachers is one of the most important factors in building a healthy relationship with technology in young people," Elena Coman, programs director at TechSoup Romania, says.

The initiative is in its pilot stage, but the nonprofit organization plans to run it nationwide in future years.

Reaching out to high-school students to counterbalance the cybersecurity workforce deficit might provide Romania with a competitive advantage in a market that keeps expanding. And who knows, a future CEO might be hiding among those pimpled white-hat hackers.

Read more from the Central European Processing blog

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