Homeland Security coming for Westbury hackers

Digital detectives: Students participate in an Unlock the Box challenge, a We Connect the Dots activity designed to educate about cybersecurity concepts and careers.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

A multistate hacking effort centered in Westbury has attracted the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s attention – and agents are coming.

But no arrests are imminent: When Westbury nonprofit We Connect the Dots hosts its Back-To-School Code-a-Thon later this month, it will welcome DHS representatives as partners in an educational data dump for high schoolers on potential cybersecurity careers, including government work.

The federal agents are among several tweaks marking the 2018 code-a-thon, the third-annual sleepaway hack-fest hosted by We Connect the Dots, a registered 501(c)3 leveling the technological playing field for underprivileged students via extracurricular STEAM-focused activities (for science, mathematics, engineering, art and math).

Because of scheduling conflicts, the once-and-future international code-a-thon also supplants partner sites in Australia and Harlem this year with a new site in Sandusky County, Ohio, joining legacy locations in Westbury and Darby, Pa. (inside the Penn Wood Middle School).

Between the three sites, some 140 high schoolers (and about 180 participants total, including mentors and volunteer monitors) will compete in the Jan. 26-28 code-a-thon, according to Laurie Carey, We Connect the Dots’ founder and board chairwoman.

While the Westbury-based organization is thrilled to continue working with its friends in Darby – “They’ve been with us since the beginning,” Carey noted – the new addition in Sandusky County is “a really interesting case.”

“This is a great way to demonstrate the scale model and show other communities how they can do this,” Carey told Innovate LI, noting the local Ohio organizers – limited to 25 student participants as first-year program partners – “raised funds locally to support food and things like that for the kids.”

The Sandusky cell won’t go it completely alone: We Connect the Dots is flying a volunteer “community ambassador” to Ohio – first-year Farmingdale State College student Vincent Occiogrosso – to help organizers there get with the program.

Lock and load: Can hackers Unlock the Box? Only time will tell.

“He’s going to coach them and show them how to run the program.” Carey said. “Then, next year, they can run it themselves and increase their number of participants.”

The other intriguing innovation, obviously, is the participation of the DHS. We Connect the Dots reached out to the federal agency last year and “shared what we were doing,” Carey noted – specifically, details on We Connect’s Unlock the Box coding activity, which is designed to challenge student programmers while introducing them to larger cybersecurity concepts.

Unlock the Box has been shared with more than 1,000 students in New York, North Carolina and Pennsylvania through We Connect the Dots’ outreach efforts, according to Carey. The basic gist: Students hear a one-hour cybersecurity presentation and then tackle coding challenges based on what they just learned, in a race against the clock to open four cyber-controlled locks.

“It teaches digital citizenship, digital literacy and cybersecurity,” Carey said. “It’s all about synthesizing information, critical thinking and problem-solving.

“Even if they’re not interested in cybersecurity, they now know what something like an attack vector is.”

The Unlock the Box presentations serve the dual purposes of introducing cybersecurity concepts and introducing students to educational and career opportunities. In the case of the 2018 Back to School Code-a-Thon, Homeland Security officials have “worked collaboratively with us on the content,” Carey noted.

“They are modifying it with some of their own content,” she said. “We include the career opportunities and (information on) the schools they can go to, and [DHS] will include components of what the government is offering for students who venture into these careers.”

With the bring-your-own-sleeping-bag code-a-thon just days away, We Connect the Dots is busily trying to nail down its future plans.

Laurie Carey: Exploring options.

The organization, which relocated to LaunchPad Westbury one year ago, is still intent on opening an 11,500-square-foot STREAM Center (adding “research” to STEAM) and wants to do it inside the 115,000-square-foot Old Country Road building housing LaunchPad Westbury.

But “we’re struggling with getting funding to build the space out,” Carey noted, and to that end, We Connect the Dots is considering several options, including a scaled-down version of its plans at the current Westbury site and “alternative venues” where backers with particular geographic interests may be more apt to fund the full-size STREAM Center.

Carey made no bones about her preference.

“I love the space that we’re in today,” she said. “I love the location, I love the people that we’re integrating and I love collaborating with LaunchPad and that whole community.

“And the building owners have been extremely generous to have us in that space,” Carey added. “But we don’t have a permanent space yet, and that inhibits us from doing the work we could be doing.”

While the organization’s long-term future is certainly on her mind, the founder is most focused now on We Connect the Dots’ annual code-a-thon – a golden opportunity, she said, to expand the organizational brand.

“What I’m most excited about this year is being able to scale the model with the program in Ohio,” she said. “We’ve proven that we can impact communities in rural areas using this format, and that was the goal from the start.

“I grew up in a small community in upstate New York,” Carey added. “This kind of stuff could never be possible.”