Armed with laptops, they packed a lounge at the University of Massachusetts Boston on Saturday, diligently working to gain access to protected computer networks.
But these 60 or so hackers were not breaking any laws.
They were participating in a competition hosted by a Maryland-based nonprofit that offers cybersecurity courses and helps connect students to jobs in the rapidly expanding industry.
“They’re here being challenged, they’re learning, and they’re having fun,” said David Brown, executive director of Cyber Aces, the group that ran the contest, dubbed the Governor’s Cyber Aces State Championship in Massachusetts.
The competition came less than two weeks after cyberattacks targeted Boston Children’s Hospital in an effort to take down its website. Other high-profile security incidents in Massachusetts include a computer system breach last fall at the Briar Group, a local restaurant chain, that put the credit card information of thousands of customers at risk.
Brown said that before the competition, participants heard from the FBI as part of a digital ethics panel.
One participant, Eben Berry, a Boston-area resident who served in the US Army and works in network security, said the contest involved tasks that are “similar to what cyberthieves and criminals do.”
Security experts, after all, must know their enemy.
“Good law enforcement people think like criminals,” Berry said. “They just don’t act on it.”
Governor Deval Patrick’s administration worked with Cyber Aces to bring the competition to the Bay State. “The Cyber Aces program is part of our collective efforts in Massachusetts to recruit, train, and employ the best talent in cybersecurity,” Patrick said in a statement.
Brown said the contestants who were invited to the state championship were the top performers among the more than 1,000 people in Massachusetts who enrolled in the group’s free cybersecurity courses online.
On Saturday, the contestants worked in a simulation program called SANS NetWars, which the US military uses to train officers in network warfare, Cyber Aces said. The program tests a number of skills, including digital forensics and vulnerability assessment.
The top three finishers — Kevin Murphy, 30, of Weymouth; Connor Quick, 17, of Gardner; and Mark Mossberg, 19, of Boston — won scholarships and opportunities for more training. Contestants who performed well will connect with government agencies and businesses in June in an online career fair.
“I congratulate all of the participants and award winners at today’s competition and thank all nonprofit, industry and military partners for making this event a success to benefit our workforce, the Commonwealth’s economy, and national security,” Patrick said.
Brown, whose nonprofit runs similar competitions in several other states — including Virginia, New Jersey, and Minnesota— said the group works to prepare tech savvy students who can ultimately offer their services to public and private entities.
“They all have information that they have to protect,” Brown said of the firms and agencies looking to hire security experts. “And there are many, many people who are trying to break into systems.”
One of the contestants — Sean Reid, a 22-year-old senior at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth — said he has a summer internship lined up in software development, but would consider working in network security.
“I think the thing about cybersecurity is how deeply it goes into everyone’s lives,” Reid said.
Alan Paller, the founder of Cyber Aces and cochairman of a federal task force on cybersecurity, said a skilled workforce is needed to confront the growing threat.
“We need a new group of cyberdefenders who can out-think and outmaneuver attackers,” he said in statement. “In two years, [program participants will] have the skills that will make them some of the most sought-after candidates on the job market.”