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Two Harbors native studies to be 'ethical hacker'

Isaac Burton

When many hear the word "hacker" they cringe, thinking they will soon hear the next story about identity theft or a large-scale breach of personal information.

Two Harbors native Isaac Burton, however, is learning to become an ethical hacker as part of a special program at North Dakota State University in Fargo. The program teaches students hacking tools and techniques so that they can learn to protect businesses, governments and even military entities from nefarious hackers.

The the 16-week course, taught in conjunction with U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Terry Traylor, prepares students to take the International Council of E-Commerce Consultants' Certified Ethical Hacker examination. During the course, students learn about potential threats as well as how to attack and defend websites and other computing systems. By learning to think like an attacker, the students are better able to prevent attacks.

"With system and data breaches occurring every day, it is critical that we prepare the next generation to tackle this challenge," NDSU computer science professor Jeremy Straub said. "Whether students plan to go on to work in IT, defend the country in the military or become penetration testers, our goal is to give them the foundations that the need for success."

Straub, the associate director of the NDSU Institute for Cyber Security Education and Research, oversees the ethical hacking class.

As part of the course, students practiced attacking systems in a secure cyber range environment recently developed at NDSU. In some cases, Traylor would demonstrate the attacks for the students to adapt and perform. In others, the students were tasked with figuring them out on their own.

"Taking this class has sharpened our skills for cybersecurity challenges and many of our futures," Burton said. "I am participating because this is a passion of mine, which I plan to incorporate into my future career. Getting this certification will hopefully become a normal thing at NDSU and myself and others plan to start this trend."

In addition to learning techniques for hacking, students in the course also learn about the ethical and legal boundaries they must respect. While ethical hacking skills can lead students to land six-figure salaries, not following the rules can land a wayward hacker in jail.