At Baldwin High summit, cybersecurity hits home for teens

Local, international students discuss world's reliance on digital data

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Cybersecurity is likely not a hot topic of conversation among teens.

But after a forum at Baldwin High School Friday, several hundred high school students, including a handful from Pakistan, developed a new perspective on the issue after realizing that cyber attacks on systems used in everyday life could have a huge impact on their families, the nation and the world.

"It was really eye-opening for me because it made me realize we are vulnerable because we use technology all of the time," said Carly Molnar, 15, a sophomore at Baldwin.

While Carly noted that her cell phone and laptop could be affected by a cyber attack, her classmate, Steven Evanovich, 16, looked at the bigger picture.

"We are extremely dependent on technology as a society. All of our commerce and trade depends on it," Steven said.

Steven and Carly were among about 600 students who participated in the "The International Student Summit, Cybersecurity: Global Warfare in the Fifth Domain," sponsored by the World Affairs Councils of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

About 100 students from Baldwin and Thomas Jefferson high schools gathered on-site at Baldwin for the conference along with Steven Sokol, president and CEO of the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh, and Phil Williams, a University of Pittsburgh professor and director of the Matthew B. Ridgway Center for International Securities at Pitt.

Other students who participated via teleconference were from Avonworth, Cornell and Hampton high schools in Allegheny County, 26 schools in the Philadelphia area, Del Valle High School in Austin, Texas, and the Roots Millennium School in Islamabad, Pakistan.

The students who chose to participate were those from advanced placement history or computer classes, who spent two days researching the topic and preparing questions and answers for the forum, said Katie Temme, an AP world history teacher at Baldwin.

The speakers included Mr. Williams and Lawrence Husick of Philadelphia, co-chairman of the Center for the Study of Terrorism at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Students listened to presentations outlining the systems that are susceptible to a cyber attack -- including cell phones and computers, banks, hospitals and emergency service providers and power grids and nuclear power plants. The speakers described the difficulty in identifying a cyber attack because no international definition exists and obstacles to prosecuting any cyber criminals who may be identified given that no international law exists.

"If you catch a cyber criminal, how do you prosecute him? Nationally? Internationally? What if the hacker represents a government? Who do you go after?" questioned one student.

Some students discussed creating a United Nations-type agency to oversee cyberspace and create definitions and prosecution methods for cyber criminals. Others talked about building systems that are compartmentalized and not easy to destroy in an attack. Students from Pakistan, who participated via email and Twitter, suggested having Internet hackers work on behalf of the government to help them prevent future hackers.

Chris Luffy, 15, a sophomore at Baldwin, said although he and his peers don't often think about cybersecurity, the summit made him realize they should. "We are the next generation, and in the future this could have a huge impact on our society."

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Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.


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